Monday, December 27, 2010

Blizzard safety tips for stranded Chicagoans

The blizzard that hit the East Coast today left many Chicagoans stranded in different cities. Lauren Tate Snyder, a Red Cross intern, is among the hundreds that can’t make their way back home from holiday trips to the Northeast. Flight cancellations, road blocks and commuter train delays can be frustrating and dangerous for the holiday visitor. The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago offers a few useful tips for you to pass along to your loved ones who may be snowed in on the East Coast.

First and foremost, it’s important to monitor the weather reports and follow the instructions of local authorities. If it is absolutely necessary that you drive during bad weather, inform someone of your travel route, destination and expected arrival time. Store a disaster supplies kit in your vehicle and remember to keep the gas tank near full to avoid ice building up in the gas tank and fuel lines.

In case you get stranded on the road, here are a few things to keep in mind.

• Stranded drivers should stay with the vehicle and not try to walk to safety. You can quickly become disoriented in wind-driven snow and run the risk of developing hypothermia and frostbite.
• Exercise your arms and legs to maintain body heat.
• Change out of wet clothing, using dry replacements from your supplies kit to prevent hypothermia.
• Use the heater for 10 minutes every hour and leave the overhead light on when the engine is running so you can be seen.
• Keep the exhaust pipe clear so fumes won't back up in the vehicle
• Make it easier for rescuers to find you by tying a brightly colored cloth to the antenna
• After the snow has subsided, raise the hood to indicate you need help.

If you encounter black snow or ice, here’s what you need to do:

• Stay with your vehicle. Do not try to walk to safety as you risk developing hypothermia and/or frostbite.
• Tie a brightly colored cloth (preferably red) to the antenna for rescuers to see.
• Start the vehicle and use the heater for about 10 minutes every hour. Keep the exhaust pipe clear so fumes won't back up in the vehicle.
• As you sit, move your arms and legs to keep blood circulating and to help you stay warm.
• Keep one window away from the blowing wind slightly open to let in air.
• Leave the overhead light on inside the vehicle when the engine is running so you can be seen.
• After the snow has stopped falling, raise the hood to indicate you need help.

For information on winter storm safety and preparation, please visit

Monday, December 20, 2010

Celebrate Christmas with Care

Jingle bells, Christmas trees and the smell of fresh snow really makes Christmas special. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to enjoy their Christmas laughing and celebrating with their family and friends. Fire raged late Sunday night at Barry Houser's home in McHenry County, where the family had gone to celebrate their Christmas weekend. Fortunately, no one was hurt but the home was completely destroyed and the decoration and festivities were all gone.

Around 12,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms every year during the 60 days surrounding the winter holiday season, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most of these injuries are preventable so at the risk of sounding like a party pooper, take the following precautions and protect yourself and your families from a holiday mishap.

• Keep Christmas trees fresh – Choose a fresh Christmas tree and secure it in a sturdy stand. Place the tree away from heat sources and exits, and water it daily. If you purchase an artificial tree, be sure it is labeled as fire-retardant.

• Test tree trimmings – When decorating with lights, be sure to purchase only those labeled by a testing laboratory. Never use lit candles to decorate Christmas trees. For outside decorations, use only those lights labeled for outdoor use. Be careful not to overload electrical outlets, and always unplug all lights before leaving home or going to bed. Never put electrical light on metal Christmas trees.

• Beware of holiday lighting – Take care when burning candles. Be sure they are kept away from decorations and other combustible materials. Don’t leave children unattended in a room with lit candles, and always keep candles, as well as matches and lighters, out of the reach of children. Never display lit candles in windows or near exits.

• Cook with care – Wear fitted clothing when cooking; hot burners can ignite loose clothing. Always turn pot handles in. Don’t store items on the stovetop as they could catch fire. Keep kitchen appliances clean and in good condition, and turn off after use. Don’t overload electrical outlets and don’t use appliances with frayed or cracked wires.

• Be cautious with portable and space heaters – Place space heaters at least three feet away from anything combustible, including wallpaper, bedding, clothing, pets and people. Never leave space heaters operating when you are not in the room or when you go to bed. Don’t leave children or pets unattended with space heaters and be sure everyone knows that drying wet mittens or other clothing over space heaters is a fire danger.

• Keep alcohol away from kids and pets- Intake of alcoholic drinks by children and pets can cause alcohol poisoning. It’s good to be merry and drink and toast to each other, but just make sure all drinks are far away from children and pets.

How to Be Red Cross Ready for Rare Celestial Events and Their Potentially Dire Consequences

This Tuesday December 21 marks the first time in 456 years that the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, coincides with a full lunar eclipse. Now I’m not saying this is ominous. Absolutely not. It’s just an exceedingly rare set of events that use to terrify primitive peoples and may be sending out some funky cosmic energy. I’m sure there are tons of movies and books that start with these circumstances and don’t end in tears. Right? Still, doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

Just in case Tuesday morning's events activate any latent zombies, it might be helpful to have that two week supply of emergency food and water stocked up at home. The Red Cross recommends storing easy to prepare nonperishable foods and one gallon of water per person per day for each member of your family. Trust me, when your neighbors are fighting their way through the zombie hoards to get to the supermarket you will be glad you had the foresight to stock up!

Now I know what you’re thinking. What if the covens of flying solstice/eclipse vampires manage to get themselves tangled in power lines and we lose electricity? Well, then you’ll be glad you have a complete disaster supply kit because it will have a battery powered/hand crank radio to receive important updates from whatever interim government emerges after the initial crisis. Also make sure you have plenty of flashlights and batteries. Avoid using candles at all costs! Accidents happen, and if a candle is left unattended or gets knocked over by a pet or a child you could experience a house fire. We at the Red Cross see a spike in the numbers of home fires we are called to respond to whenever there are power outages. While fire may be good for scaring off Frankenstein’s monster, it’s going to draw the zombies and vampires right to you.

You might not be on board with the whole monster threat thing. Well okay realist, let’s talk about a chain reaction of cataclysmic natural disasters. After initially sheltering in your home from the freak meteor strikes and tornadoes, you hear the interim government announce on your battery powered radio that a giant mega volcano has formed out in Tinley Park. Your area is in the projected hot zone for the imminent eruption so it's time to evacuate north and take shelter with our friendly neighbors in Wisconsin. You are ready to go within minutes because YOU have prepared your disaster supply go-kit. It contains copies of important papers, a 7 day supply of any medications you may need, personal hygiene items, family and emergency contact information, emergency blankets, maps of your area, and extra cash (remember the vampires brought down the power so there are no functioning ATMs!). Personalize your kit by thinking about each member of your household and their unique needs.

Even if the Tuesday solstice/eclipse turns out to be nothing (keep dreaming optimist!) the preparations you have made will be useful for more mundane emergency situations like winter snow storms, floods, pandemic flu, etc. And whatever the situation, your friends at the Chicago Red Cross will always be there to help. For more information about disaster supply kits and creating an emergency family plan, visit us at

Friday, December 17, 2010

Space Heaters: Recalled for a Reason

“The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the recall of "Flow Pro," "Airtech," "Aloha Breeze" and "Comfort Essentials" heaters sold at Walmart stores nationwide from December 2001 to October 2009.” – KTLA News

Is it just me or does “Aloha Breeze” and “Comfort Essentials” sound enticing? A few hours before this recall, my roommate called me from Target with the intention of purchasing a space heater for our small apartment. The windows in our high-rise are hardly suitable for Chicago winters and continuously keep our rooms at a chilling temperature of around 45 degrees.

“Lauren, I’m buying this space heater for our apartment so we don’t have to wear our winter coats to bed. You can thank me later,” said my roommate under the impression that I would be grateful.

“If you bring a space heater into our place, I will make sure it ‘disappears’ in the middle of the night and that the keys are changed while you are in Cincinnati so you cannot enter our apartment. You do know that space heaters are involved in 74 percent of fire-related deaths, right?

This was my reaction before the huge recall on space heaters. And yes, I knew that statistic on hand.

When 2.2 million heaters go on recall due to “reports of burn injuries and property damage from fire”, you know there is a major problem. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that “heating equipment - primarily space heaters and fireplaces - caused an estimated 66,100 home structure fires resulting in 480 civilian deaths, 1,660 injuries and $1.1 billion in direct property damage in 2008.”

As a Red Crosser, I know that space heaters pose a danger to my friends and community and these numbers reinforce my fears. Not only has my house burned down before, but last Thursday, the other Marketing and Communication intern, Zach, also lost his home in a fire. I bet you can’t guess what caused his fire.

A space heater.

And the scary part of his story is that his mother had absolutely no control over the fire. She watched the spark jump from the space heater. Within seconds, it was clear that there was nothing she could do to stop the flames from taking over and she hurried out of the house to call 911. She was just sitting there in her living room. And then it was gone.

Now, I would like to consider myself a reasonable person. I understand that for one reason or another, getting rid of your space heater might not be something you are willing to do. Here are some safety tips which I hope you follow so I can sleep without worrying about receiving another call in the middle of the night. Trust me, it’s not the kind of call you want to hear during the holidays.

• Keep all potential sources of fuel like paper, clothing, bedding, curtains or rugs at least three feet away from space heaters, stoves, or fireplaces.
• Portable heaters and fireplaces should never be left unattended. Turn off space heaters and make sure any embers in the fireplace are extinguished before going to bed or leaving home.
• If you must use a space heater, place it on a level, hard and nonflammable surface (such as ceramic tile floor), not on rugs or carpets or near bedding or drapes. Keep children and pets away from space heaters.
• When buying a space heater, look for models that shut off automatically if the heater falls over as another safety measure.
• Obviously, don’t buy any of the space heater brands that were put on recall.

Chicago, please be careful this winter season. Every day I come into work and receive an incident sheet from Disaster Services from the day before. Every day I see the numbers of fires increase as the weather gets colder. Every day I count the number of individuals who are displaced from their homes.

Be safe Chicago.

Monday, December 13, 2010

“Thank you for finding the first seven years of my life."

Harriet has lived the majority of her life not knowing that she still has an older brother and half-sister who live in Europe. We sit down and she begins her story. I listen, eager to learn. “I feel as though I have entered the twilight zone” she says, as her adoptive sister, Geri, listens from across the table.

Harriet was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II. At the age of seven, she was adopted by an American family. With no memories of life in the camp, she had little information about her birth family. Though she had always wondered, Harriet was hesitant to learn more until Geri began a project to map the family tree. She discovered the Red Cross’ family tracing services and encouraged Harriet to inquire. Together they embarked on a search for Harriet’s past.

In just a few months the Red Cross was able to locate a set of documents from the Holocaust archives in Bad Arolsen that shed light on Harriet’s birth family. The findings even included a small photo of her mother. Shortly thereafter, the Red Cross found more information to share with Harriet: the name and current address of her biological brother.

Harriet’s tracing results began to answer some of her life-long questions. Who am I? Where do I come from? Was I loved? I don’t doubt these are questions that people like Harriet ask the universe.

As she looked at photos of her childhood, provided by her biological brother, she reflected how she could almost remember what she wore. Shoes, a warm coat, and combed hair are about more than just grooming – they’re signals that we were loved and cared for. “I looked well loved,” said Harriet.

Harriet is now in contact with her biological brother and half-sister. Through email and letters they trade photos and stories about their families, slowly filling each other in on the 50+ years since their separation. The siblings talk of meeting in person, hopefully one day soon.

As Harriet’s interview came to a close she began packing up the nostalgic photos, letters, and mementos from her vague former life. She looked at us and said with gratitude, “thank you for finding the first seven years of my life.” For that, Harriet, we couldn’t be happier.

The American Red Cross works through the worldwide Red Cross Network to trace loved ones missing or separated by conflict or disaster, including the Holocaust and its aftermath. We assist individuals seeking information about themselves or a family member and provide documentation often needed for reparations claims. Our free services include:
• Searching for surviving family members
• Finding the fate of loved ones affected by the Holocaust or other conflicts
• Proof of detainment
• Evidence of forced labor or internment in a concentration camp
• Proof of evacuation from an occupied territory

Do you know someone who could benefit from our tracing services?

For more information, please contact Emma Crandell Ratajczak at or 312.729.6238.

Posted by Kendall Knysch

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Red Cross Movement -- It's Alive

Yesterday, a blog post by Sam Davidson put the smack down with the Red Cross.

I reacted the way I usually do. I gave myself permission to be upset for a minute, then I tried to truly hear what Sam had to say so we could talk.

Sam listened and approached the dialogue with an open mind and heart. Many of Sam’s other blog posts explored topics that are close to the heart of many Red Cross staff. He discussed the difference between making a living and making a life, finding happiness through a purposeful and present life, and a number of other topics that ignite the right kind of fires in people. As I read his other blogs, I couldn’t help but notice how much he resembled some of our best volunteers – the ones who hold the Red Cross accountable to become a better organization and challenge us.

I chose to work at the Red Cross mostly because I like people like this and want to be around them for more hours out of the day. I am inspired by front line volunteers, entrepreneurial board committee members and leadership volunteers who partner with us to turn a very, very big and heavy ship. I observe daily that the Red Cross agrees that the we all need to raise the ante in non-profit, and in order to do this we must organize solutions that keep us moving forward, in spite of the drag that can be created by 130 years of carbuncles. The magnificent, historic ship keeps moving in part because of volunteers who resemble Sam.

The Red Cross movement is behemoth. It takes entrepreneurs, bravehearts and big thinkers to fuel it. It also takes people who want to work within a large, complex, and decentralized ecosystem to make it continue to breath, live and evolve.

I often joke that the Red Cross has been crowdsourcing for 130 years, and I challenge people to consider the implications of that. Take a minute to really consider the implications of achieving more that 90 percent of your work through volunteers and preserving the breadth and reach of international organization that truly has to touch every corner of the world without government ties. Our staff is comprised of millions of people and our customers are everyone.

Sam and my conversation reminded me that the Red Cross system is alive and richly symbiotic. We do change, but it is much more like an evolution, because all of humanity is part of our system and our earth shakes and reeks havoc.

Sam, we'll make your ideas matter if you keep sharing them and continue to honor the size and scope of our movement. Change happens here… differently. Organically and open-heartedly. Like a weather system, it will build, then unleash furiously and extraordinarily. And when it does, new dawns break and new shoots surface. Sometimes it strikes awe when thousands of people help thousands of people in unimaginable situations that demand something new. Sam, I think you’d like it.

One of our volunteers, Hala, fled extreme dangers in Baghdad and volunteered with the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement in Syria when she was in her mid-teens. Now a Chicago Red Cross volunteer who is helping us extend the reach of our free humanitarian law class by offering it online, Hala describes her volunteer experience with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society as "what allowed me to move from victim to volunteer."

Just last night, one of our volunteers was personally devastated by losing his family’s home in a fire that stuck at midnight. When I listened to him today, he shared with me that his work with the Red Cross has been healing for him during this first, most difficult day. He didn’t feel helpless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, we invite you to challenge us and change us. Sam already crossed that line into volunteerism as soon as he talked with us, listened, then talked again. By the way, we liked Sam's second blog -- the one about how we listened. But we have to confess, we liked the first one, too. Sam and millions of other people are what makes the Red Cross better.

Let’s all keep talking and witness the evolution unfold.

How the Red Cross Mission Becomes Personal

Last night I received a call that I never thought I would get. On my iPhone it displayed my brother’s phone number. When I answered, however, it was my father on the phone. Something was off in the way that he greeted me. My usually boisterous Dad was somber. My mind went into a tailspin. I thought my brother was hurt, but fortunately he was fine. My father went on to tell me that my mother’s house had just burned down. Shocked, my body began to convulse uncontrollably. My Dad talked me through it, and I finally got to speak to my mother. She was distraught, crying, but thankful that everyone got out okay.

My mother was cold, and decided to turn on a space heater in the house. After turning the heater on she decided to continue watching television. Moments later, she saw a large spark come from the heater. The spark turned into a flame. That flame, into a blaze. She immediately grabbed my dog and cat and ran outside of the house. She got in the car and drove it far enough away from the house just to stay out of harms way. My mom called 911 from her car, and fireman soon arrived.

It is still unclear whether the house will be inhabitable or not, but I know that half of the house has been charred. Our living room, kitchen, and my sister’s bedroom are all destroyed. Thankfully, my father lives just under 2 miles away from my mother’s now destroyed house and will be hosting my mom until her living situation has been sorted out. Unfortunately, for thousands every year, there is not a person close enough or even capable enough to help them through this process.

The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago responds to 3-4 fires every single day. As an intern for the American Red Cross, I always left shocked after I left the scene of the fire. Now, the roles have been reversed.

I am working on finding a right in the situation. Everyone is ok, and everyone will be taken care of in the future. For those who don’t have a strong support system, the Red Cross becomes like a guardian angel. The Red Cross administers aid to fire victims in the form of food, clothing, emotional support, and shelter.

Space heaters are actually one of the leading cause of house fires in America, and I have written about this fact numerous times, and not thought twice about it afterward.

I never thought I would have to go through something like this, and this makes me appreciate even more the work the Red Cross does to help those in their darkest hour.

A few words of advice from a new fire victim. Surround yourself with the ones you love. Try as hard as you can to keep calm, because your strength may just be the rock that someone needs in order to cope.

As the cold begins to make itself at home in Chicago, the number of house fires increase. This week alone the Chicago Red Cross has responded to over thirty fires and provided food, shelter, clothing and more to disaster victims. If you would like to help us provide comfort to those in need this Holiday season, please consider donating to Chicago Red Cross and truly give the gift that saves the day.

-Zach Zimmerman, Communications and Marketing Intern

Friday, December 03, 2010

By the Grace of Coffee

Most days, I ride my bike to work. I'm not the only one who does it. Usually, at least 4 bikes can be found in our foyer. My bike is the red one with a metal commuter coffee mug that used to be red and, now, isn't. Day after day, I undergo the same routine. Wake up. Make coffee. Do all of the stuff that's less important than the coffee. Thank the coffee. Bike to work with the coffee. Sneak a sip at red lights.

Facing the Chicago weather has stripped the color off my commuter mug. I bike for two reasons. One, coffee tastes even better when you're cold. Two, facing the brutal elements keeps me grounded.

As a Red Cross staff member, being grounded matters. At the American Red Cross, we encounter about 3-4 families a day who have lost everything in a fire or flood. They face the elements until we help them find shelter. Our job is to provide authentic relief in the form of food, shelter and comfort. Many Red Cross volunteers and staff choose to bike to work regardless of the weather, so we remember that our 3-4 fires a day are our client's 1 fire in a lifetime.

But you've heard this story before. Our blog is full of stories about fire response. The story that sometimes goes untold is another group of people who, like us, face the unforgiving elements everyday and go to every fire. Firefighters face fire, wind, cold, and water most days. Their work is tireless.
Today, I responded to the large 3-alarm fire that struck N. Lincoln Ave. Watch our video for detail. Drifts of high-expansion-foam used to suffocate the fire covered the streets. As firefighters fought the blaze, one said to me, "I worry that they won't stay hydrated," as she looked up at the several others who were cutting through the roof with a chainsaw in an area that continued to reignite, relentlessly. Brown smoke billowed against the crisp, blue sky behind them. Today, no one needed our help except the firefighters. We sent a dozen bottled waters across the long tower ladder that stretched from one of the firetrucks to the burning roof -- their lifeline to escape the blaze. Below the burning building, Red Cross volunteers provided hot coffee and cocoa to the firefighters on the ground.
Tonight the foam will be replaced with snow. Colder temperatures will mean hotter fires. The storm winds will spread the blazes quickly leaving only still ash behind. The dichotomies are real and sobering for firefighters and Red Cross disaster volunteers.

As we talked with them about what they needed, we could see our breath. Our hands clench the coffee to stay warm. Relief. Who needs it, who gives it, and what form it will take is rarely clear.
Today, relief was coffee.

Tonight it will take some other form when the storm hits. Be a part of warmth. Donate or volunteer.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hope is the Universal Cure

I’ve never been one to preach about looking for signs in your life. I don’t analyze a relationship and declare that there are "clear signs that we are meant to be". I don’t feel a connection when I talk about buying a pair of shoes and then suddenly my roommate buys them. I don’t read my daily horoscope and wait for the prediction to come true. That’s just a coincidence. But today, when I needed to find hope in a horrible disaster, I received a sign like no other.

As I stepped out of the Red Cross van today into the biting cold, I was laced with sprinkles of snowflakes. At first glance, it was hard to tell which house had been affected by the fire; many of the houses on the block were already boarded up and abandoned. However, once I rounded the van, there was no questioning where the disaster had hit.

The living room had exploded out onto the front yard. A charcoaled pull-out couch was propped up on the wire fence that gated the property and it looked as if it was about to pull the entire fence to the ground. The remains of a once cushioned chair sat in the middle of the debris with the springs jarring out the middle of the seat. I couldn’t help but imagine what the living room probably looked like a week ago – full of family and friends celebrating what they were thankful for. Now what was left? I stared up at the grey sky and felt the snow hit my face. A piece of siding was swinging back and forth in the wind towards the top of the house. Everything was completely dark inside. I found myself searching for some sign of hope amidst the horror in front of me. As I griped the top of the fence with my exposed fingers and felt the cold metal, I looked down upon what I would consider a miracle.

A heart. Besides the rubble of the fire, a heart lay neatly on the ground as a reminder that there is always hope even when everything looks dark. I wanted to take my newly found hope and share it with the owner of the house but she was too distraught to come out of her neighbor’s home. I am sure if she saw the heart in her front yard, she would smile a little bit because she would know that she is not alone in her journey to recovery.

Helping out those in the need, whether it is in your own community or around the world, can be hard, especially now when money is tight. But did you know that a $25 donation will supply 5 blankets to disaster victims? Maybe a blanket doesn’t seem as important as food or shelter, but as everyone in Chicago knows, today, December 1st, brought Chicago’s first snowfall. A warm blanket means a lot to a disaster victim, particularly on a cold Chicago winter day or night. We are ready to respond to a lot of fires in the Chicagoland area this winter. We know that there will be more than usual (3 to 4 every single day is average) because, for whatever reason, the Holidays bring fire season. While the Red Cross will respond and offer relief to the people affected by these disasters, we need help. Please think about donating to the Chicago Red Cross this holiday season, even if it is just a blanket.

I found hope today in the last place I expected to find happiness. The next time you doubt that there is a sign of light in the midst of darkness, take a breath, step back, and take another look. You may be surprised at what you find.