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Comfort after tragedy,
with help from technology

Every 8 minutes in the United States — nearly 70,000 times a year — the American Red Cross provides emergency relief following a local disaster. The majority of these life-changing crises are home fires, most of which do not make the news. These silent disasters leave countless families without homes, personal belongings and, in the worst cases, cause serious injury or death. For decades, people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by fire or other disasters in New York City have received visits from American Red Cross volunteers who provide blankets, a personal hygiene kit, emergency funds and temporary housing in a nearby hotel. This is no small service in a city where the Red Cross sometimes responds to 20 fires per day. Now the volunteers’ toolkit includes some new items that help them meet people’s needs more quickly and efficiently. Under a new pilot programme launched in June 2014, volunteer and staff responders use smartphones and tablets — linked directly to a central web-based management system — to help them find and support affected families, as well as document and follow up each case. Photographer Marko Kokic rides along with teams from the American Red Cross Greater New York Region and files this report.

In the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan, members of the American Red Cross dispatch service monitor a variety of emergency services radio channels, including a direct radio frequency from the New York City Fire Department. When a fire breaks out, their Emergency Communications Center is notified immediately with details about the type of fire (residential or commercial), its scale and the address.
Marko Kokic/ICRC

A big part of their day-to-day work at the Emergency Communication Center is dispatching volunteers to residential fires that break out in the city’s five boroughs, which are home to more than 8.4 million people. In 2014, there were a total of 26,531 structural fires (including residential ones) throughout the city, according to the New York City Fire Department. In the case of residential fires and very large commercial fires, Red Cross responders are sent to the scene. Here an American Red Cross responder uses a tablet and Google maps to locate a home that was damaged by fire. If necessary, the responder can also take and send a photo to inform colleagues back at headquarters. As one responder explained, “We don’t just have boots on the ground, but eyes as well because we can show them [people in headquarters] what we are seeing.” Photo:©Marko Kokic/ICRC

American Red Cross responders Ivan Callazo and Nadé Coulibaly gather information to help determine the needs of a family that just experienced a fire at their home in Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs. The volunteers use Red Cross-issued iPads and their personal smartphones to input data about the damage and the family’s needs. The iPad is connected to the internet via a sim card so they then immediately upload details to a web-based case management system software called CAS. This information can then be accessed later by caseworkers when person affected by the fire visits chapter headquarters. On this evening, the family was also given blankets, a clean-up kit, three metro cards, food for four people and housing for two nights at a local hotel. Photo:©Marko Kokic/ICRC

Responders can also use the iPad to load money onto an American Red Cross credit card. This card is given to residents who may need it to buy food, clothing or other emergency items. After a fire in Jamaica, Queens, part-time Red Cross responder, Nicole Marks, uses an iPad to enter information about a family who has been ordered to leave their fire-damaged home by the fire department because it was deemed unsafe.
Photo:©Marko Kokic/ICRC

When local authorities deem a house to be unsafe, Red Cross responders will book a local hotel room for the affected residents for several nights if needed. Here, Red Cross volunteer regional coordinator, Richard Gallis, speaks with a couple forced to vacate the premises by the fire department for reasons of health and safety. Gallis explains the immediate assistance that the Red Cross can offer the family and what they should do in the coming days to receive longer-term help, should they require it. The couple is invited to meet with a caseworker at the Red Cross chapter headquarters in Manhattan. The caseworker can then direct them to other services outside the Red Cross.
Marko Kokic/ICRC


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