The American Red Cross has its ‘boots on the ground.’
This saying adheres to its thousands of volunteers who are often among the first to help people in need after experiencing a natural disaster. And Pamela Protzman had her boots firmly planted on the ground on May 22, already assisting a family with disaster assessment after experiencing a fire at their home before aiding Jefferson City residents quickly after the tornado hit her community.
Pamela and her husband, Dirk, woke up to the emergency signal going off on their television when the storm came through. Safe and fortunately unaffected by the storm at their west side home after the tornado passed, Dirk, a Jefferson City firefighter, turned on his scanner and heard all firemen in all shifts were asked to report to duty.
“I got him out the door, and I thought I might as well get dressed, too,” said Pamela, a 10-year volunteer for the American Red Cross Central and Northern Missouri chapter. “There were three of us (Red Cross volunteers) that live here in (Jefferson City). The emergency manager got the shelter for us (at Thomas Jefferson Middle School) and we were able to get the cots and blanket out here and everything set up in time for the busses of people who were coming. It was about midnight when all that happened. We worked hard and fast, but that is why we go through our training. We kept in touch with our district manager throughout to let him know what we were doing.”
As more Red Cross volunteers were called to duty, Pamela was assigned to the emergency operations center for the next several days where Red Cross members, law enforcement, fire department officials and the emergency manager were stationed downtown. There, Pamela coordinated resources the Red Cross could provide to those in need in various areas of the community.
“They would say, ‘this is what we need here and what can you do in this situation?’ and I would then relay that back to whoever is responsible in the area,” Pamela said.
Like many volunteers, emergency personnel and others, Pamela worked straight for 36 hours with the American Red Cross with only two hours of sleep. Like in the aftermath of the tornado in her own town or doing disaster assessment, sheltering or educational programs somewhere in the 27 counties her Red Cross chapter covers, Pamela doesn’t mind putting in the time to help others. To her, that is why she is a Red Cross volunteer.
“To give somebody a pat on the back, help them find a resource after this tornado or help them after they experienced a fire, that is what this is all about,” she said. “It is very hard work with long days sometimes, but it is so rewarding. When they say thank you or give you a hug, it melts everything away.”
Pamela’s passion for helping others began when she started working at a nursing home at 16 in Kirksville, having grown up in a nearby town, Greentop, Missouri. This led to a career as a nurse, continuing to work in nursing homes for 15 years and moving to Jefferson City with her family in 1987. She worked at a general practitioner’s office for 14 1/2 years, and is now semi-retired, doing private care off and on for the last almost 10 years. This also has allowed her to become a Red Cross volunteer.
After completing a background check and filling out a registration form on the Red Cross’s website, Pamela then selected what classes she wanted to receive the proper training for her volunteer service.
“With being a nurse for so many years, I wanted to try something else, so I went into disaster assessment,” she said.
When Red Cross volunteers do disaster assessment, they are looking at the quantity and financial amount of damage done. This helps the organization best deploy their resources.
“We need to be where the need is, and we don’t know until the disaster assessment team gets out there and puts their eyes on it, as they say,” said Carl Manning, an experienced Red Cross volunteer from Kansas City who assisted following the tornado in Jefferson City and worked in that area with Pamela following disasters across the country.
Pamela said the disaster assessment team will do a primary assessment and then do a more detailed assessment of each individual structure and family. They also will talk with those residents and find out their needs, give them personal hygiene products, a place to stay if they are displaced or other assistance they may need within the means of the Red Cross, which is a private entity not funded by the government but from donations.
Pamela’s first assignment as a Red Cross volunteer hit close to home when she deployed to Kirksville after it was hit by a tornado in 2009. She had not taken her classes yet and did “crash course” training on site to assist, completing the full classes later.
“We were there for three days because most of those people had family to go to and were helping each other. But we did help others,” she said. “I could see the fear in their eyes, especially because another storm was coming in, and many were still in shock. … The destruction was similar to what Jefferson City experienced, but there were some fatalities. In fact, I did disaster assessment on the road where that happened.”
Pamela saw the property where a trailer once stood that was swept up off the ground and killed its inhabitants. She talked with a neighbor, who was still in shock and agreed to receive counseling after what she witnessed.
“I can’t imagine watching your neighbor go up in the tornado,” she added. “Tornados may hit one house and then skip the next one. It bounces around and they are very unpredictable.”
A couple years later, she and Carl worked disaster assessment following the EF5-rated tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. The aftermath was much worse.
“Joplin was devastating. But I put that out of my mind until the last day and they gave us time off to just drive around. That is when it really hit me,” she said. “Those houses were splintered. We counted some of the houses by a map of driveways. There was no foundation, there was no house.
“There was one lady who didn’t have any shoes. I was going to give her the shoes off my feet, but my shoes didn’t fit her. Me and a (fellow volunteer) went to a thrift store and got a pair of shoes in her size and took them back to her. Little things like that that help. You hear their stories. Sometimes that is all they need is for you to listen and hear their story. That begins their healing process.”
Pamela has done disaster assessment multiple times within her chapter following fires, as well as larger disasters such as flooding twice in the Fort Leonard Wood and Waynesville area, a hurricane in South Carolina four years ago and a hurricane in North Carolina last year.
She has served as a shelter manager and is a disaster assessment supervisor, which means she can lead a team wherever she may be deployed. In fact, following the hurricane that hit South Carolina, Pamela joined Carl and many others who were all disaster assessment supervisors and specifically called to that national disaster due to the horrific damage left in its wake.
Pamela also has assisted in the Sound the Alarm program, which is a partnership between the Red Cross and local fire departments and allows residents to request a setup and testing instructions for up to three fire alarms in their home along with an emergency escape plan, and the Pillowcase Project, which was implemented in to the Central and Northern Missouri chapter about six to eight months ago.
The Pillowcase Project stemmed from an observation of college students packing emergency supplies into pillowcases for easy access if needing to leave their dormitory or residence, Pamela said. The American Red Cross partnered with Disney to supply black and white pillowcases children could color and decorate that can also store important items in case of an emergency or natural disaster at their home.
“We give a presentation, showing them what they should do, what they need to look for and put in their pillowcases and provide a pamphlet that allows the family to create their own safety plan in case of all sorts of emergencies, including fires, summer and winter storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.,” she said, noting she just talked to about 200 fifth-graders in Kirksville for the Pillowcase Project two days before the tornado hit Jefferson City. “They are very receptive to it and love it. It is a great program and I’m glad we are able to do it through our chapter now, too.”
Having training in all these duties and programs, Pamela looks to continue her own Red Cross education and is almost finished with conflict resolution classes. This will allow her to hopefully diffuse a situation while doing disaster assessment, she added.
Whether it is safety education for children or ground zero disaster assessment with victims, Pamela finds being a Red Cross volunteer has awarded her some great friendships and connections with people she would not have otherwise. A mother of three and grandmother of three, Pamela is encouraged that Dirk will also become a volunteer after he retires.
Like her fellow Red Cross volunteers, Pamela’s “boots on the ground” following a disaster give hope to those in need.
“The Red Cross is so rewarding, and people are so kind. They are always thanking us even if they don’t take any assistance from us. They are glad to see us because they know we are a little bit of hope,” she said. “I am very proud to be a Red Cross volunteer and try to make sure we are there to care and help them in whatever we can.”
For more information, to donate or to volunteer, stop by the Jefferson City office at 3230 Emerald Lane, call 573-635-1132 or visit RedCross.org.