[Fair warning: If you’re tired of hearing about all the volunteer stuff and how crazy happy it makes me, you might want to just skip over this post. Also: longest post ever.]
My latest conversation starter goes like this: “Hey, wanna see what I did last night??” and then I show pictures I found online of last night’s emergency with the explanation, “Don’t worry, I didn’t start the fire.” Cause there’s usually confusion when you tell people that you spent your night at the site of a large fire, and some people think maybe you’ve become unhinged, so their mind immediately jumps to you starting the fire. I’m no firebug, but last night (and this morning) was hands-down one of the most thrilling, most rewarding nights of my life.
I can’t go into too many details, and certainly none about the disaster’s specifics, but here’s the premise: there was a 4-alarm fire in a nearby neighborhood and the Red Cross was deployed to provide assistance. What this means is that we handed out water, snacks, and toys for kids, and then got information from those affected and provided a place to stay for people who had nowhere to go. This meant consulting with firefighters and other emergency personnel, coordinating with other emergency teams (ex: The Salvation Army), working with a nearby hotel, and providing immediate assistance to members of the community.
I wasn’t scheduled to be on-call last night, but we have this cool messaging system where you state your potential availability and you’re texted if there’s an emergency. If you’re not available, no problem. If you are, get ready. I was at the gym when this all went down, but I was ready to go.
When we got to the scene, we had to park a few blocks away and we had to go down a big hill to reach where our station was set up… this meant that there was a bunch of hill-running going on all night – good for me since my workout was cut short. I immediately volunteered as a runner to get supplies from our van to the site, so I made a few trips back and forth, up and down. The entire time we were there, it was raining, but it started pouring almost immediately after we arrived. Like, complete downpour, the type where the raindrops splash up a few inches when they hit the pavement. Stupidly, I wore nice jeans and my running shoes. Guess what got destroyed… After just one trip between the van and the site, I was soaked through. Add in the water from the fire hoses (which turned into small rivers the longer we were there) and some vacant (muddy) lots, and I was a hot mess. My shoes and socks were so muddy that when I took them off when I got home, I had mud squishing between my toes and I left foot-shaped mud tracks between the kitchen and the bathroom. But I digress… I got to go behind the scenes and got closer than I’d ever thought I’d be to both the fire and the other emergency workers. My main goal when weaving around fire hoses and groups of firefighters was to not get in the way and not be a pest, but every single emergency worker that I encountered treated me like I was one of their team, and some even took the time to strike up conversations with me. After a few trips back and forth, someone took a look at me and saw that I looked like a freezing, muddy drowned rat, and told me to stay put in one of the buses that were brought in so that I could dry out a little and get warm.
From there, we started passing out water, snacks, and toys for the kids, and then got down to the paperwork. We have forms that we need to fill out for everyone, and to fill them out, we need to talk to the people who have been affected. Someone handed me a clipboard and let me loose – due to the large scale and the weather conditions, there was no time for observing; I got a lot of hands-on training last night! I talked to a few people and got their information, all the while marveling at how they could possibly have their wits about them. I saw the extent of the damage (devastating), and most of these people had small children, and it was past their bedtime, and kids will be kids… but these people took the time to answer our questions in order to allow us to help them. Had it been me, I worry that I would have been in shock and useless, but these people were troopers.
After a few hours, we’d gotten info from everyone affected, and we made the arrangements with a local hotel for those that needed a place to stay the night. One more trip up the big hill, and we were on our way to the hotel with the buses of people behind us.
When we got to the hotel, we unloaded the vans and set up shop before the buses arrived. The hotel staff was very accommodating and helpful and let us take over their dining room. We have certain cards that we are able to provide to people to help with the cost of the hotel room and food, so we set to work on calculating the amount per household for each of the cards, and then handed them out when the people arrived. As the people were getting checked into the hotel, some of us went to a back room and called an office in Philadelphia to activate the cards so the people could use them. At this point, I thought I would finally get a chance to just observe a little, but then I was put in charge of speaking with the people in Philadelphia and activating all the cards. Things got a little silly at this point, since it was after midnight and we were all cold and wet and tired. Hats off to the dude I spoke to in Philly, cause he was making the process almost fun. Around 1:30 am, we were finally finishing up and our team leaders were in the room while I was ending the activation call. One of them saw what was going on, realized that it was my very first disaster and that I’d just jumped in and did a bunch of work without training, and I got some kudos. I think they kind of forgot that it was my first call – in training, they said we’d only observe on our first call, but not so much in my case.
We were all a little silly on the drive back to the office – stress + late hours + getting through a crisis tends to bring that out in teams, I’ve found. We all let loose a little and were joking around even though we were exhausted… and since the person driving took the longest way ever to get back to the office, we got a little tour of Pittsburgh.
We eventually got back to the office around 2 or 2:30 in the morning, and I got back to my house a little after 3. I still hadn’t eaten dinner, and was in desperate need of a shower, so I didn’t get to sleep until well after 4 am. Somehow, despite all indications that I should stay home, I made it in to the office today, and I’ve been talking about last night ever since.
- I was so surprised at how the emergency personnel treated us. They treated us like we were members of their team, consulted with us, gave us information, and asked us for ours. It was truly a collaborative effort, and it was so incredibly cool to go behind the scenes.
- Working with my teammates was just amazing. I’ve been on a lot of teams in my life – mostly work teams and sports teams – but this is 1,000 times more intense and more rewarding than all of those other team experiences put together. I honestly don’t have the words to express how thankful I am to be working with these fantastic people. I sound like a blubbering idiot when I tell people about them, but I just don’t care. I want to be with these people every minute of the rest of my life; working with them is like being on happy pills.
- From the moment I got the call that it was go-time, to the moment when I finally stepped into the hottest shower ever, I was working on pure adrenaline and it was the greatest feeling in the world. I ran back and forth, up hills and down, until I felt like my heart was going to explode, but I didn’t care. I nimbly maneuvered muddy hills while simultaneously cracking jokes with firefighters aiming large hoses at the third floor of an apartment that was all but demolished. I wore so many hats last night (metaphorically… still haven’t had a firefighter helmet on my head yet!), and I was able to switch modes seamlessly. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was made to be doing exactly what I was doing.
- I’m surprisingly good at this. I can be really great at this with some additional exposure and experience.
- I’m most excellent in a crisis, which is something I’ve always wondered. I’m able to keep emotions out of heated situations and deal with the facts, which I’m learning is not something everyone can do.
- Having a direct, immediate impact on people feels GOOD. When someone has lost everything and they have nowhere to go, their kids are getting cranky, and everyone is tired and hungry, things can get a little hairy. It’s a basic human response for the people to be anxious, afraid, and even frustrated. But when they finally get their hotel room and we’re packing up to leave and they give us tearful hugs because we’ve given them some place to stay and laid out their next steps for them? That’s the best.
- Despite all this happiness, I feel a little guilty. People literally lost everything, and it’s not that I don’t take that seriously, but my experience was vastly different from theirs. In their eyes, there’s total devastation. In mine, there’s excitement knowing that I’m able to really make an immediate difference and better someone’s life, at least in the short-term. Part of me feels guilty for being so excited and thrilled about this entire situation… I believe the correct terminology is schadenfreude.
- Lots of emails have been floating around through the organization today, and I’ve been getting tons of shout-outs. There’s even a call to promote me from trainee, even though this was my first call; I did that well. The feeling that I get from reading all these emails… man, I need to find a way to bottle it up and save it for a bad day. I’ve been grinning nonstop today, despite getting only about 3 hours of sleep. I can’t stop thinking about how much I love these people, love this organization, and love this work. I like my full-time job, but based on how I feel about all this, I’m second-guessing my career path. I’d love to do this full-time, and I think I’d be excellent at it.
I have a lot more that I’d like to say on here, but I don’t think that’s allowed. And if there’s one thing I don’t want, it’s to get in trouble for breaching confidentiality. But for those 6 hours that I was soaked and chilled to the bone, with mud squishing between my toes, running with pruny feet, and destroying my jeans and shoes, I felt a calm and a sense of purpose that’s otherwise been lacking until now. I’ve never felt anything like it. And I can’t wait to feel it again.