The American Red Cross of Northwest Georgia has seen a sharp spike in cases over December and through the start of January, being called on to provide assistance to over 230 people across the 13 counties it covers.
“Right now, it’s crazy,” said Keith Cheek, a volunteer disaster action team responder.
From 49 events in December, primarily fires, the Red Cross created 77 cases to provide immediate financial assistance to families, for them to secure basic needs. These 77 cases equate to assistance to 174 people, said Cheek, who is based out of Floyd County but covers surrounding counties as well while being on call 24/7.
Through the first week of this month, fires led to the Red Cross assisting 59 people in Northwest Georgia.
“We just know that it has felt tremendously busy,” said Carla Maton, the dis-aster program manager for this chapter. “We might see just under 300 calls in a year. To do 77 in one month is a lot.”
In December 2016, the chapter handled 38 cases, but this area didn’t experience the consistent low temperatures it currently is, Maton said.
Both Maton and Cheek indicated the cold weather of late has been a major factor, as residents attempt to heat their homes and end up overloading a home’s electrical capacity or a material catches fire from being too close to a heat source.
“We are seeing the impact of people doing that, trying to stay warm in these extremely low temperatures, and that’s the uptick,” Cheek said.
“When this (cold weather) happens, you've got to be more attentive to these things,” he continued. “People need to be careful about how they’re heating their homes.”
The high volume of calls reminds Cheek of his first year as a DAT – disaster action team – responder. He is approaching three years, but when he first started he was covering eight of the 13 Northwest Georgia counties.
“I’m at the grocery store, is my phone gonna ring,” he recalled constantly thinking.
As December ran into January, Cheek responded to 18 fires over several days. For the first three days in January, fires in six counties, including Floyd, resulted in eight families, or 32 people, needing assistance.
“We’re not there when the fires first start but we’re there when it’s being cleaned up,” Cheek said.
There were 19 events from Dec. 18-31 where 31 families — 51 people — had to be helped, specifically through financial assistance by activating and loading a credit card for families to have an ability to find a place to stay, get something to eat and purchase clothing. The Red Cross also offers health and mental health services, also through volunteers, such as paying to replace medications or offering counseling sessions.
“When we’re talking about fires, that’s the biggest disaster we respond to be-cause it’s daily,” Maton said. “Obviously it’s more than daily lately. That’s our biggest disaster across the nation that Red Cross responds to.”
“People might not be aware of … just how frequently that’s occurring where it’s not necessarily destroyed and burnt to the ground,” Cheek said. “There’s a lot of fires occurring where people can’t live in the home.”
The cases are led by disaster action team responders.
“That is very specific group of our volunteers who actually commit on-call hours to respond whenever the fire department calls us,” Maton said.
The 77 cases in December were handled by 14 DAT members, about half of the total team, Maton said. However, of these 14, there are only six who have enough prior experience to take on cases by themselves.
“We really are in desperate need of DAT … responders,” Cheek said. “It’s difficult to find people who can do this. It comes down to availability and willingness and desire to help people, because it is very very rewarding.”
And that reward is what keeps Cheek going, he said, but it does strain him week after week without having someone to take on call hours for him, as it has been of late.
There are no requirements to becoming a DAT responder, Maton said. They do take classes, from psychological first aid to learning the system of providing assistance, but experience, which requires hours of commitment, is what leads to responders being able to take their own cases with confidence, Cheek said.
Maton's first call as a DAT responder was with Cheek. They had met a family at a hotel.
“We were both there to keep that person, who was going through one of the most traumatic times in their life, the emotional support they needed,” she said. “They’re just absolutely lost.
“I had an eye-awakening of it’s not just the physical or financial support that people need, it’s that person there in that immediate moment giving you some encouragement and a hug and a blanket," she continued. "And it’s 2 degrees outside but we’re here with you. It really is that emotional connection, that human connection that I didn’t see before.”
“It’s that fulfillment that you don’t really understand until you get out there and face folks in these traumatic situations,” she said.
This is what drives volunteers to commit to 24-hour work, Maton said.
For further information about becoming a DAT responder, call the local Red Cross chapter’s office at 844-536-6226.