House Fires, Hurricanes and High Water: How Our Local Red Cross Responds, and the Impact of COVID-19

Jul 28, 2020

Volunteers with the American Red Cross Palm Beach and Treasure Coast Chapter provide comfort kits to victims of disasters.
Credit American Red Cross

So, as we planned for our annual hurricane season check-in with our local Red Cross, we noticed something else going on: an increase in house fires.

JD: With more people staying home, we have seen a pretty significant increase.

This is Jennifer Durrant.

JD: And I am the executive director of the Palm Beach and Treasure Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross.

COVID-19 has more people at home, cooking, maybe smoking in the house.

JD: Or you know, any one of the many reasons that could cause a home fire, we are seeing a spike in them. Most people think Red Cross, you know, major disasters but really that is the most common disaster we respond to are home fires. It accounts for the vast majority of our responses.

A Red Cross volunteer responds to one of the many recent house fires in our area.
Credit American Red Cross

313 individuals were impacted by home fires during the March 2019 through June 2019 time period. Now compare that to March 2020 through June 2020 when that number has jumped to 426.

JD: Ya, that’s a pretty big jump.

COVID-19 is making them respond a little differently too.

JD: You know, normally when there’s a house fire the fire department calls our hotline. A volunteer will go right out to the scene. But what we’ve been doing instead now is doing it virtually.

The volunteer speaks with the family to get a sense of what their needs are, then provides them with a Client Assistance Card

JD: Essentially like a debit card.

They can use it for hotel stays, food, clothing, prescriptions. They also teach fire safety through their Sound the Alarm program where they identify neighborhoods and go door to door to install smoke alarms.

JD: We also sit down with the family to make sure that they have a plan. We encourage them to identify space outside of the home that’s a meeting space and tell them don’t go back in.

Since the program started in 2014, they have documented 761 lives were saved nationally.

We can’t help but see how similar the fire-preparedness steps are to hurricane-preparedness.

JD: It’s a good point.. have a plan, make a kit, be informed…. Especially with COVID now. We’ve always said it, but now its even more important than ever to really know what your plan is in the event of a hurricane.

This especially applies to where you plan to shelter.

JD: Shelters really should be your last resort. Like if you don’t have any other options. So normally in an evacuation shelter, it’s 20 square feet per person. With the CDC guidelines now saying 60 square feet per person so obviously that reduces the capacity of a shelter.

Red Cross is there for smaller-scale disasters, like the recent massive flooding in Hobe Sound.

JD: We actually ended up putting those families, I think there was 9 of them, whose homes were unlivable, we ended up putting them in a hotel.

Once schools re-open, they’ll start their PillowCase Project back up, where they train children to prepare for disasters.

JD: We literally give the kids a pillowcase that they can keep their most prized possessions in so that if there was a fire, they can grab it and go.

Volunteers with the American Red Cross provide support for military families, this time in a local hospital.
Credit American Red Cross

Throughout the pandemic, they continue to be a resource to our military through their Service to Armed Forces Program.

JD: We are  their families from the moment they enlist, really to the end of their lives. We have a 24-hour, 7-day a week hotline for military members.

Volunteers make up 80% of the Red Cross work force, and Durrant encourages all of us to become involved.

Learn more here: https://www.redcross.org/local/florida/south-florida.html