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Red Cross Alert Net Tries to Speed Volunteers’ Response to Disasters

Times Staff Writer

When a fireworks cache exploded in a Koreatown apartment last month, Scott Underwood heard the news over AM radio. He took that as a personal defeat.

As vice chairman of emergency operations for the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Red Cross, Underwood goes to some trouble to stay in tune with disaster. He listens to Fire Department calls on a scanner most of the day. He has one at his home, one in his car and one in the office of his printing shop.

Underwood also carries a beeper, one of 200 the international relief agency issues to its staff and volunteers in Los Angeles. When there is human suffering, Underwood expects the beeper to go off. And he will jump into action wherever he is.

Underwood is a seasoned volunteer in a complex and somewhat archaic duty system designed to put a Red Cross volunteer on the scene when people are left homeless by disaster. The volunteers comfort victims, arrange for temporary food and shelter and, when the time comes, pay funeral costs and first month’s rent on a new home.

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But a continuing problem with disasters that have gone unreported to the agency--leaving victims without crucial aid--has prompted the local Red Cross to overhaul its reporting procedures, pulling the county’s 13 Red Cross chapters under a unified system. The new system started last week.

In Los Angeles County, the need for Red Cross assistance arises nearly every day, usually as a result of a domestic fire. Yet despite the efforts of Underwood and several hundred volunteers, as many as 25% of the emergencies that should merit a response have gone unreported to the Red Cross, officials said.

“A lot of times the firemen are so geared up to fight the fire, they don’t think about the victims out there in the street,” said Paul O’Hanley, emergency services specialist for the Red Cross Los Angeles chapter.

Sometimes the first call comes from a neighbor, or even a victim, days after the disaster. Hence the need for scanners, used by volunteers to get wind of incidents that would otherwise slip by.

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Officials Blame Themselves

Local Red Cross officials blame themselves as well for unreported disasters, attributing the bulk of the failures to their old cumbersome, fractured duty system.

The agency’s changes to improve reporting procedures may not be easily apparent to the public, but officials expect them to greatly improve communication with nearly 90 fire departments within Los Angeles County. Previously, there was no uniformity in the reporting links between the various fire departments and the Red Cross.

The simplest Red Cross chapters cover single cities, such as Santa Monica, or combinations of cities, such as Burbank and Glendale. The largest, however, stretches from the Kern County line to the Long Beach area, and contains many small unincorporated areas. Other more medium-sized chapters cover parts of the San Gabriel Valley and the Southeast area and even extend into San Bernardino County.

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Each chapter’s duty system has been organized around a duty officer such as Underwood. Usually a volunteer, the duty officer covers a shift that lasts several days at a time, remaining on call after hours and on weekends. When a call comes in, the duty officer drops everything--whether a trip to the grocery store or an evening at the theater--and goes to work on the telephone.

The duty officer first verifies the disaster report, then starts calling a list of volunteers.

The Los Angeles chapter has a 24-hour switchboard to field emergency calls, O’Hanley said. Smaller chapters rely on less-efficient means.

Some forward after-hours calls to an answering service at the end of the day. Others merely turn on an answering machine that gives out the telephone number of the duty officer. If the duty officer has left home, the caller may be connected to another answering machine.

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Recently, 14 Red Cross chapters formed an unofficial coalition called the Los Angeles Region to try to coordinate their administrative organization.

The first task of the new group, said Bill Stout, the region’s operations manager, was to centralize after-hours response. Staff members have now been hired and the communications equipment--including two-way radios and a new phone hookup--assembled. Stout said the chapters will be brought into the new system one at a time through this month.

Single Number Planned

When the changeover is complete, emergency calls from throughout the county will go through a single 800 number that rings at a 24-hour communications center in the Los Angeles chapter headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard near MacArthur Park. For now, that phone number will be given only to public agencies. Eventually, it will be publicized, Stout said.

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The new system should cut down the number of times Underwood has to learn about a disaster over the radio news. But it won’t cause him to stop listening to his scanners.

“It’s a necessary function,” he said. “It’s another source of intelligence.”

Besides, he said, it’s not a bad hobby.


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