Red Cross training institute braces volunteers for disaster
Friday, May 3, 2013 |
- PHOTO BY HEATHER BONHAM Anthony Gojmerac of Harold, Texas, makes notes during a training exercise for American Red Cross volunteer supervisors during a four-day leadership training institute last week in Spicewood.
By HEATHER BONHAM
Poker chips were on the table, but fun and games were the last thing on players’ minds as they worked to save lives.
A group of Red Cross volunteers in training hovered around an oversized game board filled with poker chips and chocolate candies, with the pieces representing people, available meals and various supplies, during the recent 2013 Texas Disaster Leadership Institute.
Volunteers from 13 American Red Cross Texas chapters plus Oklahoma, New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi attended the four-day leadership training for volunteers in Spicewood last week. The training offered intermediate- and advanced-level training to Red Cross supervisors and managers in Texas. State Farm Insurance funded the institute with a $25,000 grant.
Sarita Fulgencio, deputy director of Disaster Operations of Texas’ Gulf Coast region, said the site management exercise with the game pieces took Red Cross supervisors through an exercise that mimicked an eight-day flood disaster. Over the course of the two-day workshop, supervisors organized and supplied a shelter – on paper – as circumstances and supply availability changed frequently, dictated by a roll of the dice.
“The scenario is that there’s flooding that’s affecting four communities, the river has washed the bridge out, which means service and responders can’t reach some communities,” Fulgencio said. “It’s tough. They have to make a lot of decisions in accordance to the rules, and they have to adjust constantly.”
She added that adapting to the various personalities and communication styles of fellow responders and community partners is a part of both the training and actual experience.
The year’s training offered leaders workshops on hurricane response, FEMA leadership training for effective leadership and disaster instructor specialty training.
“As we’ve seen recently with the tragedy in West, Texas, disaster can strike at any time without notice,” said State Farm Claims Manager Juan Parilo, the institute’s keynote speaker. “Training and preparation for these disasters is vital and can save lives.”
Steven Sano, chairman for this year’s institute, said the underlying mission of the training was to equip Red Cross leaders so they can effectively manage the organization’s army of volunteers and partner with the community organizations that respond during a disaster.
“We teach the soft skills of how to negotiate, how to be flexible, how to build trust, how to build transparency,” Sano said. “Collaboration, cooperation and communication are three essential parts of building partnerships. Community partnerships should start before disasters hit.”
The institute also teaches leadership skills that disasters put to the test.
“We have to develop the frameworks of leadership,” he said. “You have to be creative, because in disasters, you can’t be only one type of leader. Leadership is multi-dimensional.”
Elton Fewell has spent the last 20 years as a Red Cross volunteer. Since 1995, he has also spent time as a Red Cross training instructor, while traveling and serving nationally and internationally for the disaster response organization.
Fewell believes wholeheartedly in the training provided by the institute.
“It’s very vital and an important opportunity to learn from other leaders,” he said. “Here the leadership volunteers are empowered. People are sharing things from all across Texas.”
Liza Chigos is the Texas’ Disaster Services program manager and a self-described former road-warrior disaster responder who is now settled in Austin. During the last week, she appreciated the chance to network with fellow Red Cross volunteers.
“My favorite part is sitting with colleagues and building camaraderie in the evenings. Hearing their war stories,” she said, adding that having established connections with people help them when they work together later.
The ability to effectively open up a shelter, organize volunteers and manage a constantly changing list of action items and supplies requires ongoing training, she said. And it’s well worth it to be a part of an effective team.
Longtime volunteer and instructor Larry Baker agrees. He had recently wrapped up a six-month stint serving on a Hurricane Sandy response team. He had not been home for too long when he responded to the town of West after the explosion at the fertilizer plant.
“It was intense,” Baker said of the extensive damage. There he helped set up the emergency response center, organize bulk distribution trucks and partnered with client teams, social workers and mental health caseworkers. He worked with fellow volunteers from throughout Texas.
“This state is one big family,” he said., adding that the time spent preparing for, training and volunteering suddenly is all worth it when he talks with a disaster survivor.
“There’s nothing more rewarding when somebody who has lost a home comes up and thanks us,” he said.
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