Moving America Forward

One App Has Revolutionized How the Red Cross Mobilizes Volunteers

July 31, 2015
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One App Has Revolutionized How the Red Cross Mobilizes Volunteers
A new app has helped the American Red Cross vastly improve its emergency response in the Chicago area. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
This is a successful way to solicit aid in a digital world.

Volunteers for the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois respond to three or four disasters every single day — a total of 1,200 emergencies around the Windy City every year. Most of the incidents are house fires, and at least two of the group’s 1,740 disaster helpers show up at the scene while embers are still smoking to offer shelter, transportation, financial assistance, food, water, clothing and blankets.

That is, if the volunteers get there in time. Until recently, dispatchers picked up the phone after receiving an emergency alert and started going down a list of names. “It was all individual phone calls, one by one,” Jim McGowan, regional director of planning and situational awareness for the Red Cross, tells NationSwell. “It was typically a list in a spreadsheet. It was as good — or as bad — as on paper. We would try to figure out who was closest and then call that person first and hope they can go.” Not surprisingly, the phone tree method proved clunky and inefficient. Too often, assistance arrived at a house dripping with cold firehose water and no one in sight.

Recently, a new open-source application built by John Laxson, an engineer and Red Cross volunteer based in San Francisco, has helped the Chicago regional Red Cross vastly improve its emergency response. With the technology’s help, dispatchers in the Second City now identify volunteers twice as fast.

“We’re not first responders. We’re not going there to put the fire out, so the work that we do isn’t life or death. However, typically in a city like Chicago, where it’s really hot or really cold, we want to get assistance to that client as fast as possible,” McGowan says. “If it takes us took long to get there and the conditions are harsh, that person is going to seek help elsewhere…a friend’s house, a restaurant, the police station. We lose that opportunity to connect with them to begin with, [and they miss] out on services because we’re too slow to respond.”

The system is built with the responders in mind. They input their availability into a schedule, so dispatchers don’t waste time dialing people at work or out of town. When a fire, flood, or other calamity occurs, the dispatcher (also a volunteer) enters its address and receives a list of available names sorted by travel time. After the volunteer arrives, he or she can text updates back to the central hub.

Automatic text messaging and other so-called “cloud communications” are trending in the nonprofit world, bringing volunteerism into smartphone era. For instance, Polaris Project and Thorn use the “BeFree” text messaging hotline to combat human trafficking; the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the country’s sixth largest pediatric hospital, sends reminders to patients’ cell phones to put a small dent in the 250 daily no-shows that were costing the medical institution tens of millions of dollars annually; and the Crisis Text Line offers round-the-clock support for distressed teenagers.

Nonprofits always face the problem of limited means: they take on huge challenges and stretch their budgets as far as they can go. Fortunately, as the Red Cross has found, the web is making it easier than ever to mobilize volunteers. Maybe being hooked to our iPhones isn’t so bad after all. Our chance to do something good is just a text away.
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