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Wednesday, November 13, 2002
During the emergency evacuation of a home for the elderly in Johnston on Sunday, a team of 14 volunteers helped residents leave and reunite with families.

Journal Staff Writer

"If there's any good that can come out of a big disaster like this, it is that it will raise awareness not only for fire safety reasons but also raise awareness of how the Red Cross operates, and encourage some people to join them," said Sarah E. Bilofsky, Red Cross spokeswoman.

Joe Farrington isn't sure when the call came in, but he knows it woke him from a nap.

His pager activated Sunday evening around 6:30, he thinks, and within minutes he was driving to Johnston to help the displaced residents of a retirement home that caught fire about an hour earlier.

Farrington, who describes himself as an active volunteer for the American Red Cross, led its local disaster action team at Johnston High School, where the 160 or so residents of Pocasset Lodge were sent after a fire ripped through the top two floors of one three-story wing at the facility.

The fire broke out around 5:15 p.m., after someone tried to snuff a cigarette in an artificial plant. Johnston firefighters summoned the American Red Cross of Rhode Island, which dispatched Farrington and his team of 13 to the scene.

Trained to prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies, Red Cross volunteers are on call in case disaster strikes. If a local fire department needs help from the Red Cross after business hours, a representative calls a 24-hour answering service, which triggers an emergency response system, said Sarah E. Bilofsky, a spokeswoman.

The answering service calls a volunteer dispatcher, Bilofsky said, who in turn notifies members of a small disaster action team on call for the day. In most cases, a team of two or three is sufficient to respond to a typical house fire, Bilofsky said, but the dispatcher can call any of the state's 200 volunteers if more help is needed.

On Sunday, 14 Red Cross volunteers helped elderly residents at the lodge and at the high school, where temporary shelter was established. The Red Cross has arrangements with every city and town in the state for a site that can serve as a shelter if the need arises; Johnston's is the high school. Red Cross volunteers set up tables in the cafeteria and checked in residents and their families, and 15 additional volunteers were on call with cots and blankets in case they needed to open a shelter overnight.

Most victims went home with family members that evening, and the Red Cross helped find lodging for the rest.

But because the victims involved were old, and many of them were in assisted-living units, a shelter -- or even a hotel, which the Red Cross can provide -- was not sufficient lodging, said Roberta Hawkins, the state ombudsman for nursing homes, assisted living and long-term care facilities.

Several area nursing homes were called to take a resident or two if they had extra beds; on top of that, other facilities offered whatever they could, Hawkins said. One nursing-home owner arrived to take some residents back to his facility; another interrupted dinner with his wife to send wheelchairs and walkers. Bilofsky said 39 residents were placed in available beds at 12 nursing homes.

Everyone did his or her part. Police officers and firefighters evacuated residents and gently put them at ease. Burger King, McDonald's, and Stop & Shop donated food. And a shorthanded staff of three at Papa Gino's got a last-minute order for 20 pizzas.

"Any other time you get 20 pizzas, you go, 'Oh my God, what are you going to do?' " said Nicole Grilli, who has worked at the restaurant for about three years. "But this time I didn't mind. We all worked together."

The food was delivered to the high school cafeteria, where residents and their families waited to be reunited. There, the Red Cross coordinated registration efforts to ensure that everyone was accounted for. Farrington said he was pleased with the cooperation he saw at the high school and was impressed with the community's outpouring of support.

Red Cross volunteers went home when all the residents had places to go for the night, around 11:30 or midnight, Bilofsky said, but the agency's efforts continued into Monday, and haven't stopped yet.

The Red Cross worked with pharmacies to replenish prescriptions, especially for those who need to take medicine at short, exact intervals. The organization acted as a third-party verifier to pharmacies and insurance companies that patients' prescriptions were lost in the fire and needed to be replenished, Bilofsky said. Local pharmacies reported a slight increase in business Sunday night and Monday.

The organization is also working closely with the state Department of Health to find temporary homes for residents who cannot move back into the fire-damaged Pocasset Lodge, Bilofsky said.

Residents and their families will return to the lodge today, tomorrow and Friday to retrieve clothing, other belongings and medication. Residents will be allowed to move back into the building eventually, but no date has been set, said Randall Corwin, who is coordinating the recovery effort for the lodge's management company, XL Management.

The last time the Red Cross responded to a disaster of this magnitude was in July, Bilofsky said, when about 10 volunteers helped after a fire at Eastgate-on-the-Trail apartment complex in East Providence.

"If there's any good that can come out of a big disaster like this, it is that it will raise awareness not only for fire safety reasons but also raise awareness of how the Red Cross operates, and encourage some people to join them," Bilofsky said.

About two-thirds of residential fires happen during the winter, Bilofsky said, so the prime season is just beginning. Last year, the local Red Cross chapter responded to 176 fires and assisted more than 1,000 Rhode Islanders, Bilofsky said. Volunteers come from all walks of life -- from students to retirees -- and serve as many hours as they can.

"When something like this happens on a holiday weekend, at night, in the rain, you need a lot of people to make sure that we can respond," she said, urging others to volunteer for the Red Cross. "It could happen in any community. This was a tremendous response. We want to make sure we could do that no matter what city or town this happened in."

Anyone interested in volunteering with The American Red Cross of Rhode Island may call Nick Logothets, director of emergency services, at 831-7700.

© 2002 Providence Journal Co.

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