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#GiveWithMeaning: 10 Days of Giving Back

We’ll be updating this blog post for the next 10 days leading up to Giving Tuesday. Follow Red Cross on Facebook and Twitter, as well as this post here!

DAY 5 — Giving Thanks to Volunteers

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It’s been another busy year across the country and around the world for American Red Cross volunteers as they have answered the call to help those in need time and again. Whether providing disaster relief, serving military families, helping at blood drives, providing lifesaving training, or helping communities get disaster prepared, it is the heart and selflessness of volunteers that make it happen and get the work done!

Read a few stories of our volunteers near and far.


DAY 6 — Safe Travels This Thanksgiving
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Millions of people will be traveling to visit loved ones for the Thanksgiving holiday. Whether you’re making a quick trip to the mall for holiday shopping or traveling across state lines to share a meal with family, the Red Cross has a list of easy travel tips to help keep you safe: http://rdcrss.org/travelsafe

DAY 7 — Rallying Communities Around Fire Safety
In communities across the country, the Red Cross is spreading the word on fire safety by installing smoke alarms, and helping families create their home escape plans. Learn more about our Home Fire Campaign here: http://www.redcross.org/home-fire

DAY 8 — Give Blood, Get Recipes
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The holidays are a time for families to come together for old traditions, favorite recipes and comfort food. There’s a big act of service in preparing a holiday meal. Serving a favorite meal to someone else shows them how much you care.

There’s also a big act of service in donating blood or platelets. Along with our celebrity chef partners, we would like to say thank you. When you come to donate at a Red Cross blood drive from Nov. 25 to Nov. 29, you’ll receive recipes, courtesy of John Besh, Richard Blais, Rocco DiSpirito, Mike Isabella, Ellie Krieger and Ali Larter, along with a limited-edition holiday serving spoon (while supplies last). Your donation and gift of time means so much to so many this holiday season. Book your appointment by downloading the free Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting http://rcblood.org/thanksgiving or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).


DAY 9 — Pizza Boy Turned Pizza Man
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When 19-year-old Anson Lemmer went on a routine pizza delivery run, his Red Cross babysitter training was far from his mind. But that delivery turned into a chance for Anson to save a stranger’s life using the CPR skills he learned from the Red Cross. His unforgettable quote – “I left a pizza boy and returned a pizza man” leaves us applauding, and wondering: Who is the next Anson? You could end up saving the life of someone you love dearly – or the life of a total stranger. Find Red Cross courses available in your area.


DAY 10 — Join us in Celebration
Welcome! We’re glad you’re here. In the spirit of #GiveWithMeaning, we’re counting down the stories that inspired us, humbled us and make us proud to be Red Crossers. Watch this special video to learn more about the 10 Days of Giving Back.

Giving Thanks to Volunteers

It’s been another busy year across the country and around the world for American Red Cross volunteers as they have answered the call to the help those in need time and time again. Whether providing disaster relief, serving military families, helping at blood drives, providing lifesaving training, or helping communities get disaster prepared, it is the heart and selflessness of volunteers that makes it happen and gets the work done!

The following are but a few stories of some of the volunteers making the work possible. Please share your own story in the comments below.

Susie Mahlstede (left) became a Red Cross volunteer in October when her community in Austin, Texas was struck by flooding. At the local emergency shelter she met Edna Quensel, a Red Cross volunteer of more than 20 years from Ticonderoga, New York. Together they teamed with other volunteers to help neighbors find safe refuge from the storm. Both have persevered through their own personal heartache to bring comfort to those in need. Read more of their heartwarming story here.


In addition to working his full-time job, John McCombs also volunteers for the Lowcountry, South Carolina Chapter of the Red Cross. There he leads Home Fire Campaign efforts to install smoke alarms and make local communities safer and better prepared. In addition he is also a Disaster Action Team member responding to local disasters and, in his “spare time,” also helps out with Public Affairs!


JillJill Hofmann (center) of Santa Cruz, California has been a Red Cross volunteer for 34 years! Her International Services work with the Red Cross has taken her to an earthquake in Turkey, floods in Venezuela, refugee camps in Croatia, and a typhoon in the Philippines. In the United States, she has responded to every type of disaster, including months spent in New York City following 9/11. She is fluent in Spanish, a Disaster Mental Health manager, and an instructor for Disaster Cycle Services and International Services. Truly a talented and invaluable volunteer.


Don Nelson, a Red Cross disaster volunteer from Endicott, New York, replenishes some of the shelter supply boxes at the Wenatchee, Washington, Red Cross chapter. When wildfires hit the State of Washington, Nelson deployed as a specialist in Red Cross care and sheltering, traveling across the country to help. When disaster strikes, volunteers like Don put their own lives back home on hold for several weeks at a time to make sure affected communities get the help that they need. Photo Credit: Robert W. Wallace/American Red Cross


This past spring and fall, the State of Texas was slammed with historic storms, flooding, and destruction. Thousands of volunteers and supporters from around the country came together to assist affected communities by providing more than 350,000 meals, more than 200,000 clean-up items and running nearly 100 shelters. Pictured here is the volunteer team in Wichita Falls during Spring floods, representing so many who came together to help!

On this day and every day, we extend our deepest gratitude to those who give so much of themselves in service to others. Thank you to ALL Red Cross volunteers!

5 Cooking Safety Tips to be Thankful For

Written by Greta Gustafson, Media Relations Intern, American Red Cross


During my last Thanksgiving at home my family’s tiny kitchen was filled with more than 20 people immersed in the chaos of cooking, snacking and catching up. Among the laughter and conversation, there was a loud crash and a profane exclamation from my dad. Everyone stopped their conversations and looked toward the oven. Our massive turkey slipped from the rack onto the heating elements in the oven, resulting in a grease fire. The kitchen quickly filled with smoke. My mom immediately ran to grab a rag to extinguish the fire while my dad grabbed the burning bird. Thankfully together they salvaged the turkey, minus a few crisp appendages, and the celebration continued.

Call it luck or stupidity, but this was the third time this same catastrophe occurred during our Thanksgiving celebrations. We always managed to save the turkey and our home, year after year. However, this is no way to spend Thanksgiving, and I urge you to learn from our mistakes!

Cooking fires are the most common cause of home fires and fire injuries, and Thanksgiving is a time when you are more likely to be distracted while preparing a meal. According to The National Fire Protection Association, 45 percent of all home fires are caused by cooking equipment.

The American Red Cross recommends these tips to make sure all family and food make it safely to the table:

  1. Clean cooking surfaces on a regular basis to prevent grease buildup.
    My family could have really benefited from remembering to clean the oven prior to roasting the turkey.
  1. Consider purchasing a fire extinguisher to keep in your kitchen. Contact your local fire department for training on the proper use of extinguishers.
    Using a rag to put out a fire is not the best method.
  1. Install a smoke alarm near your kitchen, on each level of your home, near sleeping areas, and inside and outside bedrooms if you sleep with doors closed. Use the test button to check it each month and replace all batteries at least once a year.
    This was one thing my family had going for us. Following the mini-fires we always knew our smoke alarms were working well. But you can easily test your alarms without going through this exercise.
  1. Keep children and pets away from the cooking area. Ensure they stay at least three feet away from the over and stove.
    This is incredibly important. Small cooking fires can happen at any time.
  1. If you’re simmering, baking, roasting or broiling food, check on it regularly.
    I can’t stress this one enough. If my parents weren’t quick enough to put out the flames, we may not have been so lucky.

This Thanksgiving, I recommend being prepared and following the steps above to help avoid cooking fires and to enjoy a safe and festive holiday season.

Helping Veterans Connect With Resources for Recovery

The history of our country is rooted in the courage and sacrifice of brave men and women who have defended our freedoms at all costs. Since the founding of America, it has been the members of our Armed Forces giving selflessly of themselves every day to keep our nation safe.

Veteran’s Day offers an opportunity to thank those who have served, do serve, and will serve.

Every life has been touched by the work of our military veterans, and it is our honor to pay tribute to these heroes – not only today, but throughout the year. In fact, the American Red Cross was founded on providing support to our troops, a duty we are proud to carry on to this day.

This Veteran’s Day, while reflecting and giving thanks, it is important to remember that the need for support often extends beyond a soldier’s military service. For many, the fight for freedom has come at a cost. And while they may have returned home, their battle continues.

Consider Kenny, a U.S. Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq as a combat medic. After returning home from service for the first time, he began having nightmares. In an effort to ease the pain, Kenny began drinking heavily. By the time he finished his final tour, he felt emotionally numb and continued having trouble with alcohol. Eventually he went to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a mental health assessment, which diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he began receiving therapy.

Talking about his challenges has helped Kenny live a more fulfilling life. He now shares his story through Make the Connection a free, online resource that helps veterans connect with information about mental health — to encourage other veterans to access similar resources for recovery.

“Coping with the unique challenges facing veterans can take a lot of effort,” said Koby Langley, senior vice president of Service to Armed Forces at the Red Cross. “Veterans and their families can gain a better understanding about resources for managing PTSD by watching others tell their real stories of coping and recovery on the Make the Connection website.”

By broadcasting veteran stories of hope and resilience, Red Crossers can strengthen the already powerful movement of veterans who are finding support for mental health challenges and taking major steps toward dismantling the stigma that can prevent other veterans from reaching out.

This Veterans Day, as we honor and thank those who so bravely serve our country, consider giving back to those who have given so much. Help to promote positive dialog about veteran mental health by sharing one of the many veteran stories on MakeTheConnection.

This Veterans Day and every day, we send our utmost gratitude and humble thanks to all who have served, do serve, and will serve!


On the Ground in Nepal and the Philippines

This post was written in September 2015 by Niki Clark, a member of the American Red Cross’s international communications team who was deployed to Nepal following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the country in April.

Niki and her pigletI am boarding a plane to Tacloban—a city on the island of Leyte, in the Philippines. It’s one of those small aircraft that you have to walk out on the runway to embark. When I land, just an hour and a half later, I am overwhelmed by the colors, a setting sun on crystal blue waters. The airport is tiny, and we are welcomed by a band of greeters singing in the local dialect. The airport in Kathmandu, Nepal—from where I just arrived—is also small, filled with local characters. Like Tacloban, it also boasts an amazing view.

I have this unique opportunity to visit two countries that are in very different post-disaster stages: Nepal four months after an earthquake and the Philippines nearly two years after a Category 5 typhoon.

I’ve been gone most of the summer, leaving the hustle and bustle of D.C. for Nepal, where I was working in the aftermath of devastating earthquakes that struck there in April and May. Then, straight to the Philippines to gather stories about how people are recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, which struck nearly two years ago.

It’s a fascinating perspective to have, four months vs. two years. In Nepal, the emergency phase is now transitioning to recovery; long-term staff replacing emergency disaster specialists; Red Cross field hospitals handed over to the community health centers; plans shifting from emergency relief to rebuilding people’s way of earning income and communities’ infrastructure.

In the Philippines, the recovery phase is well underway. Schools have been repaired, many with new water pumps and infrastructure provided by the Red Cross. Many families are now living in transitional shelters, coco lumber and/or concrete structures that can withstand typhoon rains. Others have received cash grants, allowing them to repair or rebuild their homes and reestablish their livelihoods.


One woman I met, Adelina Rosialdas, lost all of her ducks—her sole source of income—during Typhoon Haiyan. Now, nearly two years later, she not only has enough ducks to accumulate savings and put her children through school, but she has been able to purchase a pig, which just the day before my visit, had given birth to six piglets. When asked if she has a message for people in America, she says, “The Red Cross has helped us to restore our livelihoods. Salamat. Thank you to those who have helped us to recover from Typhoon Yolanda [Haiyan].”

Another man we visited, Francisco T. Latoja III, works in the Red Cross warehouse that does prefabrication of shelter materials for those receiving new homes. The earnings he has made in his job have enabled his wife to go back to school and for him to build his family a new home. His wife isn’t far off from reaching her goal of becoming a teacher.

There are challenges in both countries when it comes to the speed of recovery. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will Nepal or Tacloban. In Nepal, monsoon season, which coincides with the annual harvest, means that actual rebuilding won’t get started until the end of the year. A lack of coco timber—a critical building material—on the island of Leyte in the Philippines has delayed a quicker scale up of reconstruction.

In both countries, people have gotten back to their daily lives; even the fiercest disaster can’t temper the resilience of human nature. While Nepal’s destruction is much fresher than the Philippines’, the impact Red Cross volunteers and programs are having on the people most affected is visibly apparent.

There’s another common thread that runs between the people of both Nepal and the Philippines: their resilience. Even in the toughest of times, I can never get over families’ ability to pick themselves up to recover, rebuild, and start anew.

To learn more about American Red Cross’s work with Typhoon Haiyan survivors, visit redcross.org/haiyan.

Hidden Dangers in Fall Decorations (And Other Fall Fire Safety Tips!)

I didn’t make it 30 feet into Jo-Ann Fabric before stopping at a shelf.

“50 percent off decorative pumpkins, and it’s not even November yet?” I said partially to myself, partially to make a case to my begrudging husband who had accompanied me craft shopping earlier this season. That pumpkin, made of twigs and festooned with ribbon, is now a perfect addition to my kitchen island.Aforementioned twig and leaf decor.


Guess what else is on my kitchen island — a candle. A yummy smelling, frequently-lit candle. Even though it may not be the ideal arrangement, that pumpkin now stays three feet from the heat. Just as any item in your home should stay three feet from heat sources, including your stove, a space heater and all candles.

If your expertly carved pumpkin has survived Halloween and you can’t resist using a real candle to make it shine, make sure the candle gets blown out when you can’t monitor it, especially when you leave your home. To light the candle, use something that will keep your appendages safe, such as a long fireplace lighter. Fun fact: My family used to deploy dry spaghetti noodles for our pumpkin-lighting purposes.


Are you the proud household with gigantic spiders on your roof and orange lights illuminating every window? Maybe an inflatable turkey or two in the yard? My apartment has been reduced to one string of lights in our picture window, but even with that we are super careful to unplug them every time we leave the house.

Always remember to turn off any running electric appliances before you leave home, blow out candles and unplug fire hazards such as lights that might get too hot. Especially if they are near those new curtains you spent so much money on…


Toddler Sarah in leaf pile. Photo credit: Sarah's mom.While I may think the piles of leaves in my yard are super festive fall decor on a grandiose scale, I understand some people out there collect leaves from their yards and dispose of them. (So many leaf pile jumping missed opportunities. But I digress). If your household is serious about leaf collection, here’s how you can also be serious about fire hazards when you dispose of them:

  • Use caution when burning leaves – Clear leaves away from the home and other buildings. Burn leaves only when permitted and in accordance with local laws and guidelines. Use extreme caution to ensure safety and control of the fire.
  • Prepare your home – Select building materials and plants that resist fire. Regularly clean your roof and gutters to remove flammable debris. Identify and maintain an adequate water source outside your home.
  • Gather firefighting tools – Set aside household items that can be used as firefighting tools: rake, ax, bucket, shovel, etc. You may need to fight a fire before emergency responders arrive.


Raise your hand if the pumpkins and gourds scattered strategically around your home are soon to be chopped up for roasted fall treats. I didn’t even carve my pumpkin this year, so it’s a perfect candidate for yummy toasted seeds. Knowing the majority of home fires start in the kitchen, I always have the Red Cross cooking safety tips in mind:

  • Stay in the kitchen when frying, grilling or broiling food. If you leave the kitchen, even for a short period of time, turn off the stove.
  • Stay in the home while simmering, baking, roasting or boiling food. Check it regularly and use a timer to remind you that food is cooking.
  • Keep anything that can catch fire—like pot holders, towels, plastic and clothing— away from the stove.
  • Keep pets off cooking surfaces and countertops to prevent them from knocking things onto the burner.

Remember, we have plenty of other fire safety tips on redcross.org, as part of the Home Fire Campaign. Stay tuned for more holiday, cooking and heat-related information to keep your family safe this fall and winter!



Reflecting on the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign

Fire Prevention Month is drawing to a close, and with it, the first full year of the American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign. This effort is aimed at reducing fire fatalities and injuries by 25 percent over five years, and we’re off to a good start.

[From left to right, Kara Kelly, Fred Malven, Cody Hut, Chrissy Bristle] The American Red Cross, along with the Nevada Public Safety Department and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sponsored a Home Fire Preparedness Day in Nevada, Iowa. Volunteers canvassed the town and visited over 300 homes where they inspected existing and installed new smoke alarms. (Photo by Steve Pope/AP Images for American Red Cross)

Just before the start of Fire Prevention Month, the Red Cross announced year-one results of the campaign. With the support of many national and local partners, sponsors and volunteers, the Red Cross has been going door-to-door in communities from coast-to-coast to install free smoke alarms to families in need of them, share a fire escape plan worksheet and prove other fire safety information and tips.

Since launching in October 2014, the campaign has:

  • Reached more than 485,000 people with fire safety information,
  • Visited more than 63,000 homes 50 states and 3 territories,
  • Installed more than 125,000 smoke alarms in nearly 2,400 cities and towns, and
  • Saved at least 27 lives.

Other Red Cross partners support the campaign by raising awareness. For example, MasterCard has donated $350,000 to American Red Cross Disaster Relief and is using its communications channels to help educate its employees and cardholders on how to prevent, prepare for and respond to a home fire.

This month, MasterCard is also challenging the public to donate an additional $350,000 for a combined total of $700,000 for the Red Cross Disaster Relief to help support families affected by home fires and other disasters. More than 90 percent of the nearly 70,000 disasters the Red Cross responds to each year are home fires.

March 28, 2015. Endicott, New York. Five teams of Red Cross volunteers with the Southern Tier Chapter partnered with Broome County Community Emergency Response Team to sponsor a Home Preparedness Day on Saturday, March 28th. They canvassed a 15-block area in the Village of Endicott, NY, where they inspected existing and installed new smoke alarms. They also provided home safety education. Old smoke detectors that were replaced by Red Cross Volunteers partnering with members of the Broome County Community Emergency Response Team conducting a Home Fire Preparedness Campaign in the Village of Endicott. Photo by Chuck Haupt /American Red Cross

While the month may almost be over, the work goes on. Fire prevention and safety are important 365 days a year. To learn more about fire safety, visit redcross.org. To find local smoke alarm installation events or to become a volunteer, contact your local Red Cross. Join the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign by sharing this information with friends, family and neighbors!

Image Caption 1: [From left to right, Kara Kelly, Fred Malven, Cody Hut, Chrissy Bristle] The American Red Cross, along with the Nevada Public Safety Department and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sponsored a Home Fire Preparedness Day in Nevada, Iowa. Volunteers canvassed the town and visited over 300 homes where they inspected existing and installed new smoke alarms. (Photo by Steve Pope/AP Images for American Red Cross)

Image Caption 2: Five teams of Red Cross volunteers with the Southern Tier Chapter partnered with Broome County Community Emergency Response Team to sponsor a Home Preparedness Day on Saturday, March 28. They canvassed a 15-block area in the Village of Endicott, NY, where they inspected and replaced old smoke alarms. They also provided home safety education. (Photo by Chuck Haupt /American Red Cross)

Candy, Costumes and Candles: 6 Tips to Stay Safe this Halloween

Written by Greta Gustafson, Media Relations Intern, American Red Cross 

Halloween blends scary and fun together to create the ultimate holiday; candy, ghosts and ghouls, and staying up late are all pretty hard to beat. The best part of Halloween, for me, was always carving Jack-O-Lanterns. As a kid, I remember searching for the perfect pumpkin until my parents would force me to choose. When it came time for the main event – pumpkin carving – they would watch me like a hawk. But Halloween safety didn’t stop there. Here are a few tips from the Red Cross to keep your family safe this Halloween.

  1. Never leave candles burning unsupervised. Seeing the glowing smile of a Jack-O-Lantern is always a sign that Halloween, and more specifically candy, are just around the corner. But it is extremely important to remember to blow out all of your candles before leaving your home or going to bed. Speaking of fire safety, the Red Cross might be in your neighborhood this Halloween season to help make sure your home stays safe.

  1. Plan your trick-or-treat route ahead of time.
    Or plan multiple routes to maximize treat collection (highly recommended by this author). Either way, be aware of where your children are at all times. An adult should accompany young children around the neighborhood.
  1. Use face paint instead of masks.
    Masks can slip down and make it challenging to see. Also, it can be hard to identify your friends and family when their faces are covered. Face paint is a great way to express your creativity while staying safe.
  1. Visit only the homes that have a porch light on.
    The ones without their lights on usually don’t have any of the good candy anyway!
  1. Walk only on sidewalks, not in the street.
    Trick-or-treating is exciting, and sometimes it can be hard to navigate the slow moving crowds. However, make sure to stick to the sidewalks. A few extra minutes are well worth avoiding an accident. If you are in an area without sidewalks, walk on the edge of the roadway facing traffic.
  1. For those welcoming trick-or-treaters, keep your yard free of obstacles.
    Please go crazy with your home decorating, but make sure there is a clear, well-lit path to the front door.

Halloween may be a combination of scary and fun, but with these tips we can make sure the emphasis continues to stay on the fun part. Now go out and, safely, enjoy your trick-or-treating!

International Collaboration Key to Disaster Response

Written by Suzy DeFrancis, Chief Public Affairs Officer, American Red Cross

As I write this blog, our thoughts are with the people of Mexico and our partners at the Mexican Red Cross: Cruz Roja Mexicana.  Hurricane Patricia, the most powerful tropical cyclone ever measured in the Western Hemisphere, is forecast to make landfall in Mexico Friday evening as a catastrophic Category 5 storm, putting 400,000 people at risk.  In addition to unprecedented winds, the storm will bring flooding rainfall and a dangerous storm surge to the Mexican state of Jalisco which includes the popular coastal resort city of Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city. Moisture from Hurricane Patricia may also add to the heavy rainfall and flash flooding expected in Texas and neighboring states this weekend, and local Red Cross chapters are mobilizing volunteers, supplies and shelters in case they are needed.

CAMX1American Red Cross disaster specialists are monitoring Hurricane Patricia closely, remain in close contact with colleagues at the Mexican Red Cross, and are on standby to help if asked by our neighbors in Mexico.  Earlier this week, our senior leadership met in Canada with our Mexican and Canadian counterparts to discuss Cross Border Emergency Response.  These meetings, which have annually taken place for the past seven years, have led to a strong collaboration between our three Red Cross societies and strong friendships between the three Red Cross Presidents, Gail McGovern of the US, Fernando Suinaga of Mexico, and Conrad Sauvé of Canada, affectionately referred to as the “three amigos.”

Recent examples of how we have reached across borders to help each other in time of need include:

  • Due to major flooding in Hildago County, Texas and widespread damage in upwards of 50 counties throughout Texas, in June 2015 we called on our Mexican Red Cross counterparts for help. Within two days, they deployed a 10 member team from neighboring Reynosa, Mexico and stayed for nearly 2 weeks, helping with bulk distribution of relief supplies and serving as translators for caseworkers and providing much needed psycho social support for survivors.
  • The American Red Cross worked closely with the Mexican Red Cross in the aftermath of Hurricane Odile that struck Baja, Mexico on September 14, 2014. We contributed $43,000 to the Mexican Red Cross to assist in providing food kits to displaced people.  We also helped reconnect families of US citizens stranded in Mexico during the hurricane.
  • In 2014, when an influx of unaccompanied minors coming into the US were being processed by Customs and Border Patrol, the American Red Cross provided over 14,000 calls to enable these children to tell their loved ones that they were safe. This response was made possible by countless American Red Cross volunteers and collaboration with the Mexican Red Cross.
  • The Saskatchewan wildfires in Canada in July 2015 prompted the largest evacuation in Canadian history, and 26 American Red Cross workers deployed to support the Canadian Red Cross.
  • During the Alberta floods in Canada in July 2013, the American Red Cross put operations experts on the ground to help with bulk distribution of 574,000 relief items.
  • During the response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, both the Mexican and Canadian Red Cross societies sent workers to New York and New Jersey to help.

We are grateful for this continuing strong collaboration between ourselves and both our Red Cross counterparts in Mexico and Canada and we look forward to deepening it in the coming year with cross-training and exercises to simulate a future disaster.  We are all stronger and better equipped to do our best when we work collectively.


L to R: Cruz Roja Mexicana National Director, Fernando Suinaga; American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern; Canadian Red Cross President and Chief Executive Officer, Conrad Sauvé


How Fire Sensors are Making a Difference in Kenyan, South African Communities

This post was written by Abi Weaver, Director of the Global Technology Project, American Red Cross.

Earlier this year, we extended the American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign overseas. And given this month’s focus on fire prevention, we wanted to update you on our progress.

Fire Sensor installation Africa

This July, we announced partnerships with two sensor manufacturers—Lumkani and Halo Smart Labs—as well as more than a dozen other organizations, including CORC, frog and UNICEF—to improve the early detection, warning, and response to fires in informal settlements in Kenya and South Africa. Two communities in Nairobi and Cape Town are currently leading the installation and testing of low-cost, smart fire alarms, which can distinguish between smoke and fire, in thousands of homes.

To complement these efforts, we are also pursuing opportunities to improve the local response mechanisms through volunteer teams, policy change, and an open innovation challenge. Additionally, we are researching how best to add value by incorporating other types of sensors for heat waves, enabling technologies and complementary services like home security, as well as developing a sustainable business model to support access to and expansion of these solutions.

So far, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to apply what has worked well in the U.S.—and we’ve had even more opportunities to develop custom solutions, hand-in-hand, with these two communities in Nairobi and Cape Town. This ensures that not only is the technology appropriate for their needs and environment, but is also affordable and accessible. Scroll down to see how we’ve worked together to make the slums safer.

Step 1: Learning with the communities

Fire Sensor installation Africa 2

Initially, local volunteers mapped with GIS technology two settlements in Nairobi and Cape Town to help community leaders identify who could benefit most from smart fire sensors and better understand the surrounding environment, such as the ratio of businesses to homes to schools and other community centers.

Fire Sensor installation Africa 3

They also visited the homes of several residents to understand their risks, expectations and aspirations, and to solicit their input to the fire sensor installation and post-installation activities. Together, we established a deep understanding of people’s needs and community dynamics, which will ultimately help us co-create a responsive market strategy and sustainable business model.

Step 2: Installing and educating

Fire Sensor installation Africa 4

In one week, we successfully installed more than 1,000 sensors in Nairobi thanks to high community demand and the capacity of our extensive volunteer network. We have a similar goal in Cape Town. The sensors were specially designed for low-resource environments and are networked together to give neighbors an early warning and assist the Red Cross in responding to a fire outbreak.

Fire Sensor installation Africa 5

In addition to dealing with fires after they occur, we are using creative methods to educate the communities on how they can prevent home fires and lower their risks. Cooking competitions, outreach to food vendors, fuel stations and other businesses, and school campaigns have been well-received.

Step 3: Designing with the communities

Now, we are listening to the communities’ reactions to the sensors, and co-designing a response system and business model that meets the needs of residents and local leaders. This is where we hear sentiments like, “The most valuable thing in our home is a fire sensor.” We are also capturing areas for improvement.

Residents with sensors are keeping diaries of their experiences, participating in community workshops, and co-designing improved prototypes with local technologists. This is a sampling of the decisions community members are making as part of the participatory innovation process:

  • How would you name a fire sensor in one word?
  • How would you advertise it?
  • How should the fire sensor be maintained?

 Step 4: Testing with the communities

Fire Sensor installation Africa 6

Next month, residents in both cities will run fire response simulations with the Red Cross and local fire departments to test the sensors, exercise their response systems, and evaluate our proposed business models.

Step 5: Scaling with the communities

In early 2016, we will publish our learning and recommendations for future phases of this ground-breaking experiment. Our ultimate goal is to replicate and expand these solutions in additional communities where the fire risk is great and to ultimately #endslumfires.

As we learn more and advance this work, we will be back to share more. In the meantime, please visit Tech4Resilience.org to follow our progress.

Photos: American Red Cross / Juozas Cernius