Friday, October 26, 2007

Deep in the heart of Texas

We are at a "picnic area" (what Texas calls a rest area when there are no bathrooms) on I-10, just east of Junction (map). While this is not the geographic center of Texas, it's close, and it is very nearly the mid-point of I-10 through the state, justifying my choice of title for today's post. As I have written here many times, one of the things we love about Texas is that it permits overnight stays in most of these picnic areas (and rest areas) throughout the state.

It is dark and quiet here. There are no lights (although it is a full moon tonight, bathing the whole place in moonglow), and we are far enough from the freeway that the passing traffic is not a bother. There are two or three 18-wheelers in the truck area, but that's a good bit away, as we chose to park along the more scenic part of the picnic area, next to a ramada.

This morning I wriggled under the rear axles and gave the clamshells for the electrical connections to the leveler actuator a good squeeze, which, fortunately, quickly cured the rear leveler problem. We conducted some quick business in the shopping plaza, and I gave the chapter another call. I found out this morning that another 30 positions opened up in Response Technology on the San Diego relief operation (no word yet about LA), and I told the chapter we were in Texas, and please put our names back in for recruitment for the newly opened positions. The chapter had not even been notified of the additional openings yet -- it's good to have some inside sources.

We headed back onto the highway with perfect driving weather and conditions, hopeful that yesterday's plethora of problems would be made up for with smooth sailing today. As we drove past Lake Charles, we noted that the city has been cleaned up dramatically since the last time we were through -- there were no visible reminders of Rita, at least from the freeway. Traffic was a bit slow through Houston, at least until we picked up the HOV lane on the outbound side of the city, and we did, indeed, have mostly smooth sailing.

About an hour west of Houston, the chapter called us back with some good news: they had us on the deployment list for California. Unfortunately, they found some of our required paperwork was out of date, and we needed to fax them some updated forms. We pulled off at a rest area near Columbus, deployed the dish, and spent about an hour downloading a fax from the chapter, updating our forms, and faxing them back. All of which prompted me to make a mental note to share with you later, probably in a "Thursday Tips" column, how we receive faxes, sign paperwork, and send faxes from Odyssey without ever involving a real piece of paper or an actual fax machine.

The stop put us another hour behind, but an hour well spent. I expect that the chapter will find our paperwork in order tomorrow and provide us with actual deployment orders. (And now I find myself crossing my fingers that Investigation Area 90, in the Caribbean, will dissipate without developing into a depression -- I don't want to find out that we jumped the gun by leaving Florida before the last dregs of hurricane season were finished).

We hit San Antonio at the end of rush hour, and with the setting sun making it difficult to drive -- the perfect opportunity for a dinner stop. Another hour or so brought us here.

The additional 30 openings in Technology on the San Diego job is very telling. That's a huge number of technology workers, which is commensurate with an enormous relief operation that will run for many weeks. Knowing what we know about California wildfires and the nature of the southern California region, and how the Red Cross responds to this type of disaster, this is exactly what we anticipated. Which is why we were floored when the Service Area basically tried to tell us that there was no way additional volunteers were going to be needed there. Sometimes we wonder if these people have ever been out in the field.

While I am on the subject, in yesterday's comments, reader Lance asks, "Just what do you two *do* for the Red Cross?" That's an excellent question, so much so that I will answer here in a post, rather than responding in the comments.

A major Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation (DRO) involves hundreds to thousands of relief workers, mostly volunteers although some may come from the paid ranks of Red Cross staff, and others may be "Disaster Reserves" (similar to military reserves -- trained and ready to respond, on mandatory call, and paid a minimal stipend if they get called up). Like any endeavor involving thousands of staff, there are all of the logistics of running what is, essentially, a business with that many employees.

That means that all of the functions you would find in any business that large will be found on a DRO. There is a staffing department. There's a management team. There's a public relations department. There are people driving forklifts around warehouses, and people driving trucks (lots and lots of trucks) loaded with everything from cots to canned beans around the affected area. And, of course, there are the people involved with the actual delivery of services -- shelter personnel, feeding personnel, case workers, etc. Unlike most businesses, there is also a phalanx of folks dedicated to finding a place to sleep and a way to eat and a means to get around for thousands of workers who all came from somewhere else.

Again, like any business with all these people doing all these things, there will be telephones, fax machines, computers, printers, servers, databases, two-way radios, networks, and all the bits and pieces that go along with that. And we are both in the department that supplies, installs, maintains, tracks, and ultimately recovers, packs, and returns all of these technology items.

When we arrive at a relief site, whether it is operation headquarters, a shelter, or a family service center where disaster assistance cases will be processed, there will usually be none of these things, not even a strand of wire. These centers are often set up in vacant warehouses, or school gymnasiums, or church halls. There is no Category-5 network cable, or internet access, or (most times) even a land-line telephone. We bring all of this equipment with us, setting up entire computer networks and telephone systems from scratch, usually using a 1-meter satellite uplink to connect the whole shebang (technical term there -- sorry) back to Red Cross National Headquarters in DC. We can do this even if the entire local power grid, telephone system, and even cellular network has been wiped out by the disaster (as was the case with Katrina, for example).

All of the equipment comes to us in water-tight, flight-ready cases flown in from our technology maintenance center in Austin, Texas. We've been trained in the setup, deployment, use, and maintenance of hundreds of different items that may be sent to an operation, from laptop computers to VHF radios, IP fax machines to VSAT terminals. We also happen to be certified operators for the 12 Emergency Communications Response Vehicles, any of which might be deployed to a DRO to get computers and communications up and running even before equipment cases can be flown in.

Actually, this video provides a good snapshot of what we do for the Red Cross.

We also happen to be trained on shelter operations and client casework, either of which would put us closer to the front lines. And I can drive a forklift. But the reality is that working in the technology department leverages certain skills that we brought with us into the Red Cross in a way that running a shelter, for example, would not. So we contribute in the way which is most useful for the organization, which puts us (usually) "in the rear, with the gear."

Thanks for asking.


  1. You are most welcome.

    I'm very impressed! That's sounds like an incredibly useful and important job for the Red Cross.

    How does one go about getting training for such things?

  2. Fascinating job you have.
    And I really like your blog too. I'll be sure to return so I can read some more of your adventures. I love camping and traveling.
    BTW, we are safe from the CA fires this time, but were evacuated twice in last few years and our Red Cross experience was outstanding!

  3. @infinitygoods: Glad you are safe. Are you in San Diego, or further north?

    @lance: The training is sort of a three part process. First, it helps to be a geek in your real life. We look for people with technology skills while on a Red Cross job and pull them into our department. Second, you then get enough on-the-job training to be of use during the disaster. This is mostly accomplished by following and watching a more experienced person. Third, if you do well on the job, you would be invited to a week-long training session with the understanding that you are serious about committing to further Red Cross work. The training is expensive for the organization, which is why folks have to first serve on the ground.

  4. Thanks for sharing the link to the video about what you guys do. I found it very educational and enjoyed seeing the behind the secene info. I also enjoy your blog daily! You have a great lifestyle and I am most jeolous in a nice way. keep up the great contribution to mankind.


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