A night in the life of a DAT member

-By Bob Wade, DAT Night Team Leader/Supervisor — ARC of SE Wisconsin — Milwaukee, WI.

Monday, Jan. 19, 2009:

As a member of the Milwaukee American Red Cross Disaster Action Team, I’ve learned that anything can happen at any given moment while on duty.  Each night, right before I go to sleep, I ask myself, “What’s it going to be tonight, something really big or nothing at all?”

This past Sunday night, it didn’t take long to get an answer.

12:14am, Monday morning:  “Dispatch to Car 18 and Med 6.  Respond to the 2800 block of N Cramer St for the report of a structure fire.”

I’m lying comfortably in bed, channel surfing on my TV when that report comes across my police scanner. 

“Here we go!” I think to myself.

I look at my thermometer, 8 degrees outside and time to start throwing the layers of clothing on.  I know exactly where that address is so I don’t stop at my computer to look it up on Google Maps.

Shortly thereafter, the dispatcher calls out a full assignment to the Cramer Street address which I hear on my police scanner, which is just south of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Red Cross Duty Worker, Carolyn, calls as I’m pulling out of my driveway.  A few minutes later, as I’m passing the Miller Park baseball stadium on the freeway, I hear, “Working structure fire at S 14th St & W Becher St.(Pronounced “Beecher”) Reports of shots being fired!,” from my scanner.

“Dispatch, we’re staging at 14th and Rogers,” came a report from firefighters at the scene.

The firefighters are waiting for the police to secure the scene for safety reasons before they go in to fight the fire.

I pull off of I-94 at 26th St and decide to take the Becher St fire once I hear a 2nd-alarm get called out.  I’m so much closer to the 2nd fire at this point.

My GPS is still talking to me, thinking and believing that I’m going to the Cramer St fire. “Shut up!” (I yell at my GPS) I’m on the phone, frantically trying to get a hold of my teammates as quickly as I can and trying to formulate a game plan to split the team up to respond to two fires at the same time.

“Call out a 3rd alarm,” shouts a voice across my police scanner from the Becher St location.

I decided to pull the van over to the side of the road at this point.  I can’t drive and do all of this safely at the same time! 

“OK,” I think to myself.  “I’ll send an Assistant Team Leader (Sue Boe) with three others over to the Cramer St fire and I’ll send my Supervisor (Tim Byers) and another ATL (Jaicobi Cobb) down to the Becher St fire and have them meet me there.

The Cramer St fire had been sized-up as a single-family dwelling.  The Becher St fire was sounding like a multi-family apartment building.  I’ll send a larger number of my teammates to the first, yet smaller fire, so they can complete the job quickly then pull all of them down to the bigger fire at (hopefully) the point when we would need a larger number of DAT’ers on scene to physically assist the clients.  I was banking on the hope that the Cramer St fire residents would not need me to respond with the van to that address. 

I program the Becher St address into my GPS and put the van in gear as I call the plan out across the radio. By this time I have called everyone and all of my teammates are responding.

Back live on the radio, I say “Sue, Joe (Lecher), Michelle(Harings), and Ruth(Erbach) will be responding to the Cramer St fire.  Tim, Jaicobi and I will be responding to the Becher St fire. Stay on the same channel so everyone can hear what’s going on at both fires.  When you’re done with Cramer St, everyone can come down to the Becher St fire,” We’re supposed to used our assigned numbers while speaking across the radio but at this point I couldn’t remember who was assigned what and using first names was much more efficient.  “10-4?”

The police scanner chatter was coming in non-stop from Becher St Command.  “Come in from the North!” I kept hearing.

I actually came in from the East, then drove West.  I was two blocks south of the fire scene and the smoke from this fire was as thick as fog.  Emergency vehicles were screaming in from every direction.

I turned north on S 15th St, then turned right on Becher St., parking half a block from the fire scene.  The 2nd and 3rd alarmed units came pouring in right behind me.

I ran up to the intersection and saw a rather large building completely engulfed in flames and smoke.  I gasped at what I was witnessing!

“This is 5420!  We have a two or three story fully involved structure.  I can’t tell how many floors are on it. I can barely see it.  It’s so covered in smoke and flames.  There are live power lines down, sparking in the intersection of 14th and Becher.  Be careful when you get here!  It’s a 3-alarm fire now!!” I yelled across the radio.

I’m standing on the northwest corner of the intersection.  That live power line is starting to bounce around on the street directly in front of me, shooting out what seemed to be small bolts of lightning, lighting up the street and sky like daylight around me.

There are at least three ladder trucks, fully extended, pouring water down upon this fire from the air.  I do a full scan of my perimeter, trying to locate those who may live within this apartment building.

There are a lot of people outside, seemingly in a trance, all staring at the incredible fierceness of the blaze before us.

The noise level on the street is ear piercing. The sounds of incoming sirens surround me. The sting from the night’s cold air is painful.  I see firefighters falling down on to the street every which way I look.  The water being used to put out this fire is freezing on to everything it lands upon.

A lone man in front of a church up the block starts to stare at me.  I walk towards him and ask if he lives in the building, which is on fire.  He says, “Yes.  I can’t believe I woke up and made it out of there alive!”

We finally get a good look at the building.  It’s a 2-story brick exterior structure.  Flames are raging out of every window as well as the roof, which is starting to show signs of collapse. 

Firefighters are dropping their lines from their engines in all four directions of the intersection.  The streets are starting to flood with the water already being poured upon this unforgiving fire.

I tell the man before me who I am, why I’m there, and that we’ll do everything possible to help him from that moment forward.  I ask him if he needs anything more to wear, if he’d like a blanket.  He states that’s he good for now.

“How many units are in your building?” I asked the man. 

“Seven!” he responded.

I let him know that it’s highly probable that a Milwaukee County Transit Bus would be on its way for him to seek shelter upon shortly.  I needed to find out if that was true and an ETA so ran over to a Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) squad car and asked the officer’s within.

“20 minutes for the bus,” an MPD officer told me.

I’m still awaiting the arrival of Tim and JaiCobi at this point and realized that I’ve only identified a single occupant from the building so decide to start my perimeter search for the others.

Tim arrives as I’m crossing the street and we both go into ‘Search’ mode.  JaiCobi arrives shortly thereafter.

Sue calls me from the Cramer St fire and states that they’re already finishing up at that scene.  It was an attic fire, the homeowner’s had insurance and a place to stay. I ask her to get herself and the rest of her team on down to where we were, ASAP!!

While Tim, JaiCobi, and I were identifying and interviewing additional occupants from the fire we were at, I started hearing chatter across my own radio.

“I can see your fire from atop the high-rise bridge!” one of my teammates commented across the radio on her way from Cramer St.  That’s quite a few miles away.  Another said she was on the Hoan Bridge and could see the fire as well.

The flames weren’t getting any smaller at the Becher St fire. It was out of control and getting worse!  I could feel the heat from it as I was speaking with the occupants and neighbors.

I came across two people, then more, without shoes or coats on at that point and decided to call off the goal of just interviewing the occupants.

I got back on the radio; “Stop the interviews…they’re taking too much time.  We have people out here without shoes and coats on.  Try and identify those who need clothing, shoes, socks, blankets, etc… We can complete the interviews once the bus gets here!  Let’s get these people clothing first!”

It was extreme chaos. We were running from groups of people on each corner, trying to identify those who lived in the building versus those who were just there to watch, while jumping in-between fire trucks, Med units, firemen, leaking hoses, you name-it.  People were yelling, screaming, crying.

Sue, Joe, Michelle and Ruth began arriving at the scene in their own vehicles.  The cavalry had arrived!

After giving everyone a quick briefing as to where we were at that point, I had everyone split up and go in the four directions from the middle of the intersection to try and find the rest of the occupants from the building.

Joe and I walked east and found only TV cameramen hiding in the shadow-ways.

“Keep an eye out for a bus,” I said across my radio.

I ran into an MPD officer at the end of our block and asked him if he had heard any updates over his radio on the status of the bus.

“It’s coming in from the West…should be here at any time now,” he stated.

We don’t have a single resident in a place of temporary shelter at this point. I’ve been sprayed twice by the fire hoses and ice has formed all over the outside of my Red Cross jacket and helmet.  I can only imagine how the time spent out in this extreme cold has been affecting our potential clients by this moment.

I run west towards 15th St and see the bus.  It pulls up then leaves before I can get to it.

“The bus is here!” I shout out across my radio.

I ask the nearest MPD officer where the bus is going.

“He’s going to come in from the north on 14th St,” he says.

I get on my radio again and inform my teammates about this.

“Start steering the clients in that direction,” I say.

We all gather on the corner of the intersection, everyone looking up the street to the north, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the bus.  Everyone is shivering and looking north.

The fire is still raging out of control at our backs.  We’re almost keeping from getting frostbite from the heat of it.  There doesn’t seem to be any amount of water that the firefighters can pour on to this fire that can put it out anymore.

It seems like forever but the bus finally appears out of the darkness, two blocks to the north of us on 14th St and they have the driver back it up, all of the way in, past all of the fire trucks, ambulances, Med units, etc…where it ends up right next to the Fire Department’s Communications vehicle.  MPD had their Com. truck right next to that.

I noticed that Milwaukee Fire Bell unit was behind both of those vehicles, serving up hot coffee and food for the firefighters.

After getting all of our clients on board the bus and informing them what was going to happen next, we met back in the DAT van in order to get our interview information together.

I pulled out an apartment interview form and we were quickly able to put all of our most crucial client information on to a single sheet of paper and then determine our next plan of action.

We had 7 confirmed and occupied units at this fire.  One family was missing from the scene.  There was a report from one of the neighbors that they were home when the fire started, but left.

At that point, we had zero injuries/fatalities.  Great news for everyone!

The majority of our clients had made it on to the bus so it was time to determine what we were going to do for them next, from a Red Cross point-of-view.

Looking at the information taken from the interviews, most of the tenants had no alternate places to stay, no transportation, and no renter’s insurance.

I reached down into the box next to the drivers seat and pulled out a handful of client assistance cards. 

“We need to give these families two nights in a hotel room, and CAC’s, for Monday is a holiday and the Chapter is closed,” I stated to my teammates in the back of the van.

“Who wants to go on to the bus and do this task?” Both Sue and Michelle volunteered.  .

While they were over in the bus doing that, I called a hotel up and started booking rooms.

One of our units’ occupants had taken refuge a block up the street, at a friend’s home.  JaiCobi had made those two clients ‘his’ family. 

The way I operate is, when you do the interview of a family, that’s “Your family.” They know you—the interviewer–best, as a representative of the American Red Cross DAT at each call we respond to, and that’s whom I prefer being the primary care-taker of them from beginning to end. We all help everyone at the scene, but if you do the interview, you should focus your attention on those individuals the most since they tend to become comfortable with you.

As a Team Leader, I want you to come to me with “Your family” as if they were your own mother, father, brother, sister, your own children and make sure that their immediate needs are addressed and taken care in the midst of the chaos.

I knew that I could go straight to JaiCobi for updates on their situation, condition, etc…

One of the men was using a walker.  Anytime I had meaningful new information for the two men from that particular apartment unit, JaiCobi would run over to the house and relay that information to them. 

Once the bus had parked, JaiCobi and I went over to the house up the block and helped the two men over and on to the bus.  It was a painstaking process, with the glare ice on top of everything.  The last thing I wanted to see happen was the one individual fall while using his walker.

I made it about a half block with the two men when a detective pulled up in his vehicle and asked to speak to me.  We were right next to the DAT van and my teammates seemed to automatically get out and helped the two men the rest of the way to the bus.

The detective told me that the woman he had in the back of his vehicle was involved in the start of the fire and asked me what we could do to ensure that she had a place to stay that night.

“She didn’t start the fire, but knows who did,” he told me.

“Can we put her in our van?  Is she free to go?” I asked the detective.

“Yes,” he said.  “Her children are over at a different address, staying in what’s supposed to be a vacated address.  It has no electricity nor heat in it,” he added.

“We will take great care of her and her children,” I affirmed.

It’s going on 5am at this point.  We arrived there just after midnight.  Some of my teammates are starting to lose their steam, and all of us DAT’ers have to be at work at our regular jobs in a couple of hours.

The fire was still burning!!

Just before getting our last client into the van, I stuck my head in through the driver door and asked my teammates to head back over to the bus to get our clients clothing sizes.

This was one fire where it was painfully obvious that the occupants escaped with only the clothing upon their backs. 

These 7 families, whom were unexpectedly forced from their homes earlier on this night became our friends and we treated them like family to the best of our ability.

Sue and I interviewed the woman whom the detective had brought to us, while we released the Milwaukee County Transit Bus, which took our clients directly over to the hotel.

We met our last client up the street at the house where her 8 kids and another adult were, stocked them up with supplies, then helped them into two taxi’s and sent them to the hotel as well.

Standing outside in the single digit temperatures, watching the two taxis depart, I looked over at Sue and said, “We’re done!”

While the firefighters are always heroically the first one’s in, we DAT’ers don’t leave the scene until all of our clients are in a safe place, have clothing, shoes and socks on their feet, money for food and supplies, and the words of hope we convey to them, in our own most desperate hopes that they don’t give up and say that life isn’t worth living anymore.  It gets that bad and goes that deep at the scene of so many fires we respond to.

I ask Sue if she’s going to actually go into work after this fire call.  We both think we are.

Thinking back, there were so many one-on-one moments we had with our clients that morning which made us sad for them, although we tried not to let it get to us.  It’s our job to show strength, compassion, as well as to give hope to our clients.

I told Sue that I was planning on going home, taking a shower and going right into work, but that I’d probably talk myself out of it by the time I got home, which I did.  I had zero sleep that night.

A day and a half later, Tuesday morning, MFD got called back to the scene because the apartment building re-kindled itself and started burning again.

Because that Monday was a holiday (MLK Day), the Chapter wasn’t open.  Come Tuesday morning, the Red Cross case workers were ready to pick up the pieces for our clients, as they did selflessly with extreme compassion.

The local newspaper (http://www.jsonline.com) published two photos on that following Tuesday morning, after the fire started up again…

The ‘in-box’ of my email quickly flooded with messages from my fellow teammates on Tuesday morning.  “It looks like 9-11!”

No one ever got to go back in to retrieve anything after this fire.  All they escaped with were the clothes on their backs and their lives.

The cause of the fire was reported as a domestic dispute between a man and a woman.

Most, if not all, of the residents here did not have renter’s insurance.  Even if they did, how could they have possibly been able to show the insurance company what they once owned?

As I drove home from this fire, I thought about what we did right, and wrong, at this call.  I was so proud of how my teammates worked together and so well at this call.  You’ll never see this type of incredible team work accomplished at the job that gives you a paycheck.

A week later I drove past the address…

While the controversy changed as to whom actually started this fire, the American Red Cross in Milwaukee took great care of the residents displaced from this fire, without judgment.

Two weeks later I asked one of my teammates if all of this had really happened. It all seemed like just a bad dream.

Although we rarely get to hear the outcome of our clients’ situations after our job is done, I give great faith in the hope that they will be OK, knowing that the ARC case workers really care about the work that they do, and know that they feel the same way as I about my newly-found friends.  They’re family!

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