Virtual Disaster Assistance in the era of COVID-19

Topics: British Columbia and Yukon, BC Coastal Region, Lower Mainland, Emergencies and Disasters in Canada, Our Impact on the Ground, Philanthropy News, Volunteer, Volunteer
June 18, 2020

The Upper Squamish Valley Fire (or Magee Road Fire) was the first emergency of 2020 requiring evacuations to hit the province of British Columbia. The blaze started on April 15, and, at its peak, burned houses and other structures, displacing more than 100 people.
Canadian Red Cross Emergency Support Services volunteers worked directly with Emergency Management BC and the District of Squamish to ensure that those who were displaced had their immediate needs met for the first 72 hours of the evacuation, with food clothing and shelter; however, COVID-19 restrictions regarding interpersonal contact, significantly changed the way Red Cross volunteers were able to support clients impacted by the disaster.
“Normally, we’d be on the ground with clients, supporting them through their shock and grief and directly providing them the information they need to proceed and move forward,” explains Squamish-based Emergency Support Services volunteer, Dustin Wales.
Emergency Support Services gives a local authority (in this case the Regional District in Squamish and Squamish-Lillooet Regional District) direct access to an extensive emergency management network and response system. Red Cross-trained personnel support the relief and recovery process for people with needs such as food, lodging, clothing, emotional support and family reunification.
The health and safety of Canadian Red Cross volunteers is a priority, and the physical distancing restrictions that the COVID-19 pandemic placed on emergency response volunteers required adaptation and flexibility to the usual response processes.
“I think we often take for granted the non-verbal communication that’s passed on to our clients in the event of an emergency: that human face, that Red Cross vest,” said co-Team Lead Pete Thompson, Emergency Management volunteer based in Squamish. “But it is invaluable in demonstrating empathy and building trust. To try and provide that same feeling over the phone is more challenging.”
There are many interdependencies when offering emergency support. The relationships with the clients are paramount, but so are the relationships with the vendors who provide support.
“Usually we provide paper vouchers and forms,” explains Wales, “But for the Squamish response, we worked digitally to ensure the vendors would be compensated for their contributions.”
And it wasn’t just the contact with clients and vendors that had to change. The ESS team worked collaboratively but remotely building new processes and procedures to replicate their pre-COVID working environment. They relied heavily on technology like video chats and Microsoft Teams to create documents they could update together and track the data while working apart. 
“It was very difficult at the beginning, and we adapted extremely well—especially given our distance and multiple locations,” said Garrett Young, who supported from Vancouver with Red Cross Emergency Management coordinator Sarina MacDonell. They virtually joined a seven-person team from Squamish co-led by Michelle Dehne and were also supported virtually by 52-year volunteer veteran, Deb Chmara and her team of six from Castlegar.
The entire response lasted seven days—long hours and long days—but was pivotal in testing the new practices and protocols for future Red Cross emergency responses in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Provincial Manager, Emergency Management, Kai Nestman, believes that the success of the response, even with these added challenges, can be attributed to constant communication, practical sensibilities among the team, and hard work.  
“We’ll continue to work to find the balance between virtual response and our in-person delivery to ensure that personable and empathetic delivery for clients is maintained,” says Nestman, “and with the innovative and dedicated volunteers we have working for the Red Cross, I know it’s possible.”