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Rocky and the American Red Cross

The American Red Cross was once a very big part of my life. Back in June, 1972, what we called Hurricane Agnes had struck the East Coast, and most significantly, had caused a lot of flood damage around my community. School was closed because the roads were so damaged, we couldn't get there. I wanted to help others who were affected by the storm's wrath. I called my local Red Cross chapter to offer to volunteer, and when they found out that I was "only" 14 years old, they laughed and told me to call back in a few years.

That very afternoon, I saw some friends who were wearing Red Cross name badges. I asked them how they could be volunteering when I was turned down. They told me that they were volunteering with the Prince George's County Chapter, a neighboring county. So I called up and got to work. I was mentored by Sylvia Lewis, who was then the Youth Director. She taught me a lot, and gave me respect.

A couple years later when I began my studies at the University of Maryland at College Park, I went back to the Prince George's County Chapter of the Red Cross to learn CPR, and then learn how to teach it. The chapter was just a couple miles away from campus. As time went on, I moved up in the ranks as an Instructor, Instructor Trainer, and then served as Chairman of Health and Safety Services. I got elected to the Board of Directors and served as Vice Chairman of the Board -- the youngest in chapter history.

I volunteered a lot for the chapter and learned a lot of things. When I was looking for a job in 1987, I saw a job announcement at the Red Cross national headquarters. With the chapter's support and having had a good interview, I was hired and began work at "NHQ" in October, 1987.

I spent more than 17 years at Red Cross national headquarters. During that time, I learned a lot, traveled a lot, and developed what became a world-class public education initiative called "Community Disaster Education." I had lots of help doing that from a number of professionals in various federal government, state, and local organizations and agencies. I am grateful for the support received on many initiatives, including collaborative publications and outreach efforts.

Of particular interest and what has served as a lasting legacy, is that I organized the National Disaster Education Coalition. The impetus to create this organization began with a motorcycle ride from Maryland to Florida, on which I gathered over 100 brochures on hurricane preparedness. I found woefully inconsistent and inaccurate safety advice among these materials. I shared them with colleagues at FEMA and the National Weather Service, and they, too, were appalled. We agreed it was time that we got our "national act together." About the same time, I was working with the Northern California Earthquake Preparedness Project, set up after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Extensive research on how to encourage people to take action to mitigate the effects of an earthquake, as well as be safe when an earthquake occurs, was put into practice. Exceptionally far-reaching outreach education initiatives were done by a number of community-based organizations reaching hard-to-reach audiences.

During the period from 1992 to 2004, we assembled representatives from federal agencies and non-profit organizations so we could review public information and advice about natural hazards. We used this information to develop jointly-logoed products and materials for public education initiatives. What pleased me most is that once we began producing these materials, the public (and emergency managers) were getting the same, consistent, research-based information. The variances and vagarities of public education were being reduced, which was a good thing. It took a lot of effort and persistence, but eventually (by 2004), with the publication of the Second Edition of "Talking About Disasters: Guide for Standard Messages," we had finally achieved agreement by 22 federal government and national non-profit organizations on 21 topics from floods to fires to earthquakes to nuclear and radiological matters. This was the achievement of which I was most proud while I was at the Red Cross.

The work during my tenure at the Red Cross was fascinating. Visioning and seeing through the development of the Masters of Disaster® children's disaster safety curriculum was also one of my proudest achievements. Throughout my time at the Red Cross, I got to do a lot of very interesting things, meet exceptionally intelligent people, and travel to some very interesting places, including all 50 states and all of the U.S. territories and posessions in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as ten foreign countries. But most of all, I truly enjoyed working with the chapter volunteers and staff across the country. I learned so much from them, and enjoyed their support and camaraderie.

In Spring, 2004, my office was finally moved to a brand-spanking new building in downtown DC. I was very happy to move back to working in the city, because it was closer to my federal agency colleagues with whom I worked often, and was a much easier commute.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the the next "re-thing" to happen again (we had been re-engineered, re-structured, re-designed, re-modified, and every other "re-" word in the book but they would never call it a "re-organization"). I got "re-'d" into the Health & Safety Department, which was still located in the "Jurassic Park" building in Falls Church, Virginia. They thought that having Disaster Preparedness in Health & Safety might be a way to make an alignment with educational initiatives of the organization, which made sense on paper, but not in practice. It was hard to explain to a group of people who were looking to sell products (courses) that all of "my" content was public domain and available from multiple agencies for free.

While I had endured six major reorganizations over 17 years, that last reorg was the beginning of the end. The placement in Health & Safety was not a good fit, the commute returned to being hellacious, and it became almost impossible to continue our achievements in disaster preparedness work. I left in November, 2004, with a heavy heart and sadness. But I also remember the great things that I had accomplished, and was happy to do in the name of the American Red Cross.