Red Cross volunteers on the ‘virtual’ frontlines of response during pandemic

Topics: Ontario, Virtual and Digital Volunteering
By Fernanda de Fraga, Communications Volunteer | May 26, 2020

It is a message that has been often repeated during the COVID-19 pandemic – to ensure the health and safety of everyone, maintain a physical distance of two metres from one another.

But for Canadian Red Cross volunteers, who typically respond to emergencies in person; where a hug, touch on the shoulder or simply a friendly face can help comfort someone affected by disaster – how would it be possible to provide that comfort while maintaining a safe distance?

The pandemic has shown that, once again, every emergency is unique with its complexities and individual sets of circumstances. While many aspects of a Red Cross personal disaster assistance (PDA) response remain the same – providing shelter, food and clothing, or emotional support to people affected by a personal emergency - the Red Cross remains flexible, adapting  its service delivery process in order to meet those needs. During COVID-19, this has meant going virtual.

In mid April, this new virtual response was put into action following a housefire in Stratford, Ontario.  The call came in just before midnight following a house fire and a few people needed a safe and warm place to spend the night. Red Cross volunteers connected with individuals by phone to gather information and made arrangements for nearby accommodations.  The new process is effective, but it comes with its challenges.  “We work really hard to get accurate information over the phone, but it is very different than being there in person,” says Carlos Vidreiro, a supervisor of the PDA team in Stratford. “For example, at first we thought there were three people needing support. We were just finishing our assessment when we received one more call. A fourth person was sleeping in his car with the heat on because he did not have anywhere else to go.”

It took several phone calls, back and forth, which took some time, but within two hours everyone affected by the fire was provided shelter.  In addition, pre-paid cards to support the purchase of food and clothing were delivered to individuals the next morning.

The virtual assistance allows  Red Cross work to continue while the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. “At the end of the day, people get the help they need. This is the most important,” says Vidreiro.

“In a time of great transition, our local Red Cross volunteers have been flexible and adaptable in a rapidly changing response landscape. Much gratitude to our volunteer team and community partners for their agile response when called upon,” adds Darin Dees, Emergency Management Coordinator for the Red Cross in Stratford.