Reducing Fire Death: A New Mission Focus

Marty McKellips

By Marty McKellips, Regional Chief Executive Officer, American Red Cross Serving Central & South Texas

From my very first home fire response, I have been in awe of the power of the Red Cross volunteer and the importance of the mission. I began my Red Cross service as a volunteer on the Disaster Action Team (DAT). DAT responders are the volunteers who answer the phone at any hour of the day or night to help a family or many families impacted by home or apartment fires.

Marty at Apartment Fire
In my early days as a volunteer, I spent many hours on the scene of apartment fires like this one in Austin.

It was very rewarding to respond to the scene of a fire and use my Red Cross training and resources to help a family take those first steps toward recovery. I could assure them they would have shelter, clothes, food and a caseworker to connect them to other necessities. I could hand stuffed animals to the children for comfort and, with a simple phone call, I could connect to a nurse to replace vital medications.

I have never had a job, paid or volunteer, where I could so immediately see the positive impact of my work. However, all of the training and resources the Red Cross gave me could never prepare me for the tragedy of a home fire where someone does not make it out. No amount of financial assistance, hugs or community resources can replace a lost family member. When someone is killed in a fire, our licensed mental health volunteers are on the front line for both the surviving family members and our volunteers who are witnessing the pain and tragedy. In many of these fires the deaths are preventable, which makes the tragedies even more gut wrenching.

I will never forget arriving at the ruins of a rental property in Central Austin where a local band was sharing the rent and pursuing their dream of being professional musicians.  They were all in their early twenties and as close as any family could be.  One of their band mates, a very talented young man, did not make it out.  Several of them had tried, in vain, to rescue him.  They were distraught and filled with guilt that they were alive and he was gone.  We stood with them in the freezing rain and offered the full array of Red Cross services.  But nothing we could offer would bring back their friend. It is a moment that will always stay with me.

With tragedies like these never far from my mind, I am grateful for and enthusiastic about our new Home Fire Campaign. This campaign mobilizes our volunteers and donors to actually reduce the number of home fire deaths across the country, empowering us to change the future and save lives before home fires strike. m39340282_HomeFiresKeyFindings-1

One of our first canvassing events took place last Fall. We joined forces with AFD firefighters and installed smoke alarms for free in East Austin.

We know that working smoke detectors cut the risk of dying in a home fire by half. We are using our huge volunteer base, our power to convene community partners and our relationships with government to canvass neighborhoods. We are helping families create fire safety plans, checking batteries and installing smoke alarms. The campaign is still in the very early days – yet we already know of six lives saved in this country because of smoke alarms that were installed during Red Cross Fire Campaign events.

Here in the Central & South Texas Region we have had several canvassing events and installed more than 190 smoke alarms. We will never be able to completely eliminate home fires, but we can significantly reduce the needless loss of life. While I wish that there would never be a need for the Red Cross—that not a single other family will know the shock and pain of losing their home due to a disaster—I am thankful that we will be able to make a significant change through this campaign. My most sincere hope is that our Disaster Action Team responses can be more about recovery and less about grief.

If you are interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer to help install smoke detectors where they are needed, or if you are interested in partnering with the Red Cross during this campaign, call us at 512-928-4271.

If you don’t have time to volunteer, consider making a monetary donation. A donation of $10 could provide two blankets for a family in need of comfort after a home fire. A donation of $30 could help install two smoke alarms. A donation of $100 could provide clothes and shoes for a family who has lost everything. You can help us give what fire takes.

Red Cross volunteers canvassing an East Austin neighborhood alongside AFD firefighters.


Reducing Fire Death: A New Mission Focus

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