Picking up the pieces
After the smoke has cleared and the flood waters receded, teams of British Red Cross volunteers are now on hand across the UK to give victims vital emotional support. Sarah Holmes investigates how masonic funding has helped this service to roll out nationally
When the Telford family home caught fire in September 2014, Michelle and her five children got out with nothing but the pyjamas on their backs. ‘It was awful watching the black smoke billow out of the house,’ remembers Michelle. ‘All I could think was “What am I going to do? Where are we going to live?” ’
A plug in a bedroom sparked the blaze, which quickly engulfed the house along with a lifetime’s worth of possessions. Nothing could be saved. Fortunately, the family didn’t have to deal with the consequences alone. Within minutes, a British Red Cross Fire and Emergency Support Service (FESS) vehicle – one of a national fleet part-funded by The Freemasons’ Grand Charity – arrived on the scene to offer the family hot drinks, clean clothes and a safe place to sit away from public view. ‘The volunteers stayed with us for a good couple of hours until they knew we had somewhere to go,’ says Michelle. ‘I was so grateful for their help.’
Michelle is just one of the many people who have received support from the FESS, which has evolved over the years to help victims through such emergencies as fire, flood and road collisions.
‘In an emergency situation, very few of the blue light agencies have capacity to look after the emotional needs of survivors,’ says Simon Lewis, head of emergency planning and response at British Red Cross. ‘Quite often, families are left to deal with the consequences alone. That’s where the British Red Cross comes in.’
‘The emergency services know they can rely on a Red Cross volunteer not to make silly mistakes or try to play the hero.’ Simon Lewis
Founded in 1993 in Berkshire, the British Red Cross FESS set out to provide emotional and practical support for victims in the wake of a fire. It worked in cooperation with the national fire service, with volunteers trained in first aid responding to call-outs from the incident officer. The service relied on specially adapted vehicles that contained everything from a shower and toilet, to a telephone and household staples such as nappies. But at a cost of £50,000 per vehicle, most funders were reluctant to commit to the level of investment needed to help the service flourish. That’s where the Grand Charity stepped in.
‘We heard about a service the Red Cross was hoping to trial, which would provide much-needed assistance to people in the aftermath of personal tragedy. It sounded exactly like the type of thing we wanted to fund,’ says Katrina Baker, Head of Non-Masonic Grants at the Grand Charity.
The Grand Charity provided an initial grant of £300,000 in 2000, allowing the Red Cross to set up 10 support services across the UK. ‘We used the money to buy 13 new vehicles and train 800 volunteers, so it essentially kick-started the service,’ recalls James Hickman, senior trusts and statutory fundraiser at British Red Cross.
‘Rather than making do in a marquee, a Fire and Emergency Support Service vehicle acts as a fully equipped base for our volunteers to provide timely, high-quality care. It’s a fantastic presence at local events like the London to Cambridge Bike Ride, but crucially it allows the British Red Cross to respond to major incidents like the east coast storm surge in December 2013 when evacuees of the floods most needed our help.’ Simon Holmes, Cambridgeshire emergency response and resilience manager, British Red Cross
Serving changing needs
It was a starting point, but as the occurrence of domestic fires almost halved by 2011, the role of the British Red Cross service needed to change. Diversifying its remit, the FESS began to support NHS ambulances, providing assistance at major incidents with its fully equipped First Aid Units. Today, the Grand Charity’s UK, non-emergency grants have exceeded £650,000, and the Red Cross has been able to deploy 20 new emergency vehicles.
‘We’ve reached over 90,000 people, and that’s as a direct result of the Grand Charity funding,’ says Hickman. ‘It’s their flexibility that makes the partnership so valuable. They are responsive to our needs and willing to work with us to establish which region will benefit most from their support.’
Cambridgeshire is one region that benefited from a new First Aid Unit in 2011. Peter Sutton, the Provincial Information Officer, says: ‘We have raised £1.2 million for the Grand Charity, so our local Freemasons can feel real pride that we have contributed to making this support possible.’
The Red Cross is playing an ever-more vital role in the emergency response sector. Just last year, volunteers assisted communities devastated by the UK winter floods, helping to evacuate people as well as delivering food, blankets and first aid.
Lewis attributes the success of the service to its volunteers – who are trained in providing first aid and emotional support on joining the team – but also to the relationship between the Red Cross and the emergency services: ‘Trust is vital in any fast-moving situation. The emergency services know they can rely on a Red Cross volunteer not to make silly mistakes or try to play the hero.’
British Red Cross in the UK
While the foreign relief efforts of the British Red Cross are well advertised through its public appeals for funds, the charity actually spends more at home in the UK than it does abroad. In fact, in 2013 the Red Cross spent £28.1 million responding to UK emergencies compared to £25.7 million spent on overseas support during the same period. The relationship between the Red Cross and Freemasonry has always been a strong one, with Freemasons in the UK donating more than £2 million over the past 30 years – vital funds that have supported Red Cross services and relief efforts both at home and abroad.