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Big disasters stir people’s generosity, but fires are more frequent

Megan Snow is executive director of region’s Red Cross.

In response to the many major disasters of 2017—hurricanes and floods in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, the California wildfires, shootings in Las Vegas, Texas and Freeman High School, and the Amtrak derailment—the American Red Cross deployed 56,000 disaster workers, provided 658,000 shelter overnight stays, 13.6 million meals and snacks and recovery assistance for more than 624,000 households.

While big disasters draw media coverage that stirs people’s generosity, the most frequent disasters the Red Cross responds to are 60,000 house fires a year, said Megan Snow, executive director of the Greater Inland Northwest Red Cross.

For Central and Eastern Washington and North Idaho, there are offices in Spokane and Wenatchee, 4.5 staff and more than 600 volunteers trained to “deploy” locally and nationally.

Over the last 10 years, the Red Cross has shifted from each chapter operating as an independent unit under the national Red Cross mission to chapters aligning such functions as their human resources and accounting systems into the national organization to be more efficient and collaborative so they can serve more people more effectively, Megan said.

Chapter borders define service areas, but boundaries do not matter when there are disasters, she said. 

“When the Oso landslide hit, our chapter’s volunteers who were trained went as soon as they were needed,” she said. “Now we are watching Rattlesnake Ridge near Yakima and have volunteers ready to go there.”

Megan said that 97 percent of those responding nationally are volunteers, and 99 percent locally are volunteers.

“Staff recruit, interview and screen volunteers to fill specific job descriptions.  About two-thirds are on call to respond to disasters,” she said.

Some are trained to run Red Cross shelters.  Others are trained to feed people.  Some are trained to assess needs after larger disasters, such as a wildfire.  Some are case workers working with people through recovery.

Many volunteers are retired, but some have flexible work schedules, can deploy quickly and stay two to three weeks. When they travel a distance they stay longer because of the expense of flying.  A deployment within the region may be just for a week.

Some volunteers with specialty training such as mental health counseling or nursing can be deployed for short periods because we need to care for them, said Megan, who has worked in the Spokane office for nine years, as communication manager for six years and serving as executive director the last three years.

Disaster volunteers receive training before they are deployed as members of the Disaster Action Team. Local teams have classes and online training on Red Cross procedures, personal safety and interacting with clients.  Volunteers learn they need to care for themselves when they work with people experiencing trauma.

Disaster Action Team members, who live around the region, are on call as much as it fits their schedule, as part of teams on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  If a fire happens, first responders or the fire dispatcher contacts the Red Cross. Volunteers may be called at 3 a.m. to go to a fire and help someone they don’t know.

“We are typically the only service agency on scene at a disaster.  Our role in the first 72 hours is to make sure people have a safe place to stay, food and clothes to start them on the road to recovery,” Megan said.

The Disaster Action Team assesses the number of people affected and their immediate needs.  They may offer a pre-loaded debit card to ensure the critical needs of those affected are met, from paying for a hotel to buying diapers.

“After an initial meeting, our caseworkers conduct a follow-up meeting in the next 24 to 48 hours to help a family determine their pathway to recovery,” she said.

Then the Red Cross collaborates with other agencies, like the Salvation Army, SNAP and Second Harvest, to broaden the base of support.

Over the following week or so, the Red Cross checks every few days to see if the family has housing and other needs met. 

“No one can manage someone else’s recovery. So along with direct assistance, we guide people to resources and make referrals so they can manage their own recovery,” she said.  “Caseworkers help people recognize their needs.”

Since July 1, 2017, the chapter has responded to 116 fires with 445 clients, which is high for the region, Megan said.

House fires happen.  Some are on the news, and some are not.  When media cover disasters they tell about the situation and how to help.  Many organizations help.

Sensationalizing a disaster does not help, she said.  While media spotlighted the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, they overlooked other islands hit as hard.  When media stop coverage, a disaster goes out of mind, when long-term help is still needed.

She is attuned to communication dynamics, having worked six years at the Red Cross in communication to build awareness, raise funds and develop relationships.

Megan came from Hawaii, where she grew up, to Spokane when her older sister came to study at Gonzaga University.  In 1997, she began studies there in public relations, graduating in 2001. She worked a year with a PR firm in Portland, a year at Riverpark Square revitalizing downtown and four years with Hoopfest before completing a master’s in communication and leadership in 2008 at Gonzaga.

Seeking work with an agency that had impact on the community, she learned the Red Cross needed a communication manager.

By communicating about it, she has been impressed that so many volunteers are ready to deploy, as they did for the 2017 summer and fall disasters.

The Red Cross can use people with any skills, including technology, because there is a need to set up computers and printers at disaster operations headquarters. In the Caribbean, technology volunteers set up satellites so people could phone families on the mainland to say they were okay. 

The Red Cross is still in Puerto Rico and other islands because the disaster is so extensive, she said.  They rely on local chapters to shelter people.

“When we send volunteers, we have to assure their safety and that they are prepared to live with hardships like no running water or power,” Megan said.  “Volunteers have to be in good health, because there may be no access to medicines. Nurses check volunteers’ health status before they deploy.”

Everyone has a different reason for volunteering with the Red Cross.  Some took swimming lessons as a child, were helped in the military or experienced a house fire. Some want to have an immediate impact on people in need. Some have volunteered for years.  Some want to see other places. Some want to help locally. Some are motivated by faith, and see it as a way to be of service.

Some faith communities are partners, opening doors to shelter and feed people. The Red Cross trains them. VOADs, Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, involve congregations in long-term recovery.

In larger-scale disasters, the Red Cross offers emergency aid and then hands the work to VOADs to develop Long-Term Recovery Groups, like after the 2014 and 2015 wildfires in the Methow Valley and Okanogan.

“Emotional trauma may arise as people struggle to reconcile their faith with how the tragedy could happen to them,” Megan said. “Some victims have spiritual care needs, as well as mental health and health care needs because the trauma can have impact beyond the immediate disaster.”

Spiritual care may be needed for a neighbor of someone whose house burned.

George Abrams, a retired United Methodist pastor who has worked with his denomination’s disaster response, helps lead the Red Cross’ disaster spiritual care, along with Mike Bullard, a retired Presbyterian pastor, who is chair of the Inland Northwest VOAD.

Related to religion, Megan said the Red Cross is impartial and neutral, two of its seven principles.  The others are humanity, independence, volunteer services, unity and universality.

“We respect individual choices and faiths. Our volunteers help people recover based on the client’s faith.  Volunteers listen, support and respond,” she said.

“Our work makes life better for people in the hardest times,” said Megan. “I believe we should do that for each other.”

The Red Cross also offers preparedness classes.

Americorps volunteers go to elementary schools to teach about fire safety, smoke alarms, escape plans and evacuation.

As part of a national initiative, the Red Cross also partners with organizations such as the City of Spokane and Spokane Valley Fire Departments to install free smoke alarms in high risk communities. Faith organizations, such as the Latter-Day Saints, have supported these efforts with volunteers. 

It also trains people in First Aid, CPR and how to use AEDS.

“While we are often seen as a big national organization, the reality is that the Red Cross is local. volunteers are local people, who decide to help make our communities and neighborhoods more resilient,” said Megan. “As an independent nonprofit, we receive no government funding. When there are big disasters, generosity is amazing. Local disasters need the same support.”

With recent disasters, there has been a new swell in volunteers who need training to respond here and be ready to go to the next big one.

For information, call 326-3330 or email

Copyright © February 2018 - The Fig Tree