The tumultuous election this past year resulted in a national debate that left us either thrilled or upset. But that is the great thing about this country. Divided opinions are not only our right, this diversity gives strength to our democracy, ideals, and policies. And every four years, we have an election to move the country forward.
The excitement of a first term presidential inauguration is a very special thing. It is a day of hope, splendor, and presidential ceremony. It was especially exciting when my wife and I were invited to witness the inaugural oath and address from the Disaster Operations Coordination Center at the American Red Cross National Capital Region Headquarters. Located in Fairfax, Virginia, the facility is the site for both our country’s International Response Center and Domestic Operations Response Center.
Before the presidential event began, we were given a tour of the technology-rich centers and their various support teams. The term “war room” is a good description of the facility, with banks of huge computer and television screens, computers, and cases of emergency equipment.
Given the proximity of Fairfax to the events unfolding across the Potomac, most of the staff and response teams moved to an undisclosed, sheltered command center shared with FEMA, somewhere in Loudoun County, Virginia. If the unthinkable were to happen, it would be vital for the Red Cross to stay fully operational to support FEMA, Department of Defense, Emergency Management Agency, Homeland Security, law enforcement, fire departments, and other emergency services. (The Red Cross occasionally operates out of a similarly remote command center with the FBI.)
Paul Carden, the Red Cross Regional Disaster Coordinator, explained they had been planning this inauguration for the past eight months. The controlling agency is the Secret Service, and this is one of only about 50 events that get such attention. A Papal visit, the opening of the WWII Memorial, and presidential inaugurations are the rare times where the Secret Service pulls together the many agencies for response and aid: federal and local law enforcement, Homeland Security, all of D.C.’s emergency services, fire, medical, and all emergency first responders and care givers. The Red Cross is the only non-profit group to be a part of this massive planning effort.
The primary Red Cross service for this event involves “Go Teams,” who are essentially eyes on the ground at designated locations, in liaison with police and emergency services. These 300-plus volunteers serve many functions, assisting even if nothing major happens. “Where is the Metro station from here?” Caring for lost children who stray off, or those who might get sick, or seek a Red Cross warming station in bad weather. Service with a smile, always.
The Red Cross works closely with D.C. Human Resources, and there are some 10 trailers pre-positioned for this event, filled with bottled water, blankets, coffee, and mass care provisions.
A Red Cross liaison works directly with police emergency units and the Red Cross is wired into the D.C. Metropolitan Police command and control that connects everything. The press of a button alerts 100 agencies instantly.
Carden went on to say that despite the eight months of planning, real disasters rarely give any warning, so being prepared is critical. No other non-profit organization has these resources. He also mentioned that the Red Cross volunteers for this inauguration got up at 3 am, so they can be out on the streets at 4:30 am, ready for what may come.
We watched the television screens, each covering a different network feed. Other screens showed maps and traffic patterns and weather. The speeches went on, the crowds responded, the oath was given. I could not help but be awed by this collective big data atmosphere in this operations center. We watched in real time as this spectacle took place, cameras and information coming from all angles. Thankfully the phones remained quiet, for the most part.
We later got a briefing by Linda Mathes, CEO of the National Capital Region. She had been one of those up at 3 am, supporting the troops. She emphasized the importance for the Red Cross teams to keep up their smiles if there were protests, maintaining strict neutrality and non-partisanship. That is the rule of Red Cross worldwide. It does not matter who a volunteer voted for. (She commented that POTUS is honorary chairman of the American Red Cross.)
“We never take this responsibility for granted,” Linda said to the group of us around the conference table. She also told us that the National Capital Region, among other Red Cross chapters, has a unique relationship with the Secret Service, FBI, police and fire departments, Department of Defense, and emergency agencies. The National Capital Region Chapter is at the heart of Washington.
The Red Cross standard “product” is Consequence Management in an emergency or disaster: feeding people, providing shelter, relief kits, shovels, mass care, mental and medical health care, nurses, first aid, pet friendly shelters, even spiritual care to help people deal with the emotional stress. That is the core product of the Red Cross, although these services may vary in how they are provided. Flexibility is required.
Linda told us the Red Cross planning for this inauguration event extends beyond Fairfax. Critical care units for mass events are set up in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Richmond, large response groups who can be here within two hours if something happens. Such coordination is simply remarkable, all going on behind the scenes.
And that was what struck me most about my day in Fairfax. Events such as a presidential inauguration are complex in nature and threats exist on many levels. Just having thousands of people come to town presents its own issues. The amount of planning and coordination and integration speaks to the enormity of the task of keeping everyone safe yet ready to respond quickly and effectively on all fronts when needed.
But despite the inauguration unfolding that day, the Red Cross remains diligent elsewhere. I noticed one large screen had a large illuminated map of the U.S. Digital pushpins were scattered across the country, each identifying possible issues.
Natural disasters have become more intense in recent years. Tornadoes, hurricanes, wild fires, derechos, tsunamis have more of a global impact than ever before. With today’s technology, disaster around the globe can be supported at local, regional, or greater levels. Global events are coordinated out of the Geneva, Switzerland headquarters. When a country asks the Red Cross for help, the response is swift, coordinated, and appropriate for the event. The American Red Cross involvement is larger than most countries, due to our vast resources and ability to respond quickly.
Linda’s briefing closed with the continuing need for better prevention programs, another major focus of the Red Cross. There are 56,000 house fires each year in this country, and the organization works with fire departments and schools to teach fire prevention. The Red Cross helped install 500,000 smoke detectors nationwide, and its “Red Cross Ready” school programs aim at prevention.
The inauguration came off without major incident and I was thrilled to have experienced it from the Red Cross facility. Thanks to our hosts for the invitation to learn firsthand the valuable work this organization does for so many people.
I also left feeling even more proud to be an American, seeing the massive volunteer work that goes on, an even greater respect for the many agencies tasked to keep us safe, and all those who put their lives on the line when something bad happens on a large scale.
And I admit to having goosebumps at the end of the inaugural parade, as 1,700 VMI cadets marched as one to conclude a special parade on a very special day.
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