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Citizen volunteers training for response teams

/ Source: The Associated Press

In a room filled with nurses, emergency medical technicians, firefighters, veterans, retirees and recent graduates, Jason Timber has a compelling reason for wanting to volunteer with the Red Cross to help hurricane victims.

His 5-year-old daughter, Destiny, may be one of them.

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Timber has sought information about his daughter, who was living in Mississippi with her grandmother. Finally, he called a toll-free number to volunteer, with the goal of being deployed and finding his daughter.

“Hopefully,” he says. “Or someone who might know where they’re at.”

Red Cross chapters nationwide are recruiting and training thousands of citizen volunteers. They’re learning everything from CPR and first aid to how to distribute food and operate shelters.

Training sessions filling fast
In Connecticut, Red Cross workers said they can’t keep up with the numbers wanting to volunteer. The Charter Oak Chapter, the state’s largest, received more than 4,000 hurricane-related calls. All of its training sessions are full.

In Massachusetts, the Boston chapter will train 75 people Saturday. In Iowa, officials were planning to train 50 to 75 people in a weekend session.

“We may have to rent a hall,” said Linnea Anderson, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross chapter in central Maryland, which has received more than 250 calls to volunteer.

In York, Pa., Mark Royce was so touched by television news accounts of Katrina’s victims that he considered loading his pickup truck with water and driving to Louisiana.

At his wife’s suggestion, he instead signed up for a Red Cross class. He hopes to leave his advertising business and family to help on the Gulf Coast.

“It just broke my heart watching these people, refugees in my own country,” said Royce. “It’s tough to take three weeks off for a vacation, let alone something like this. But I’ve got good people working for me.”

Mobilizing 9,000
While officials like disaster response volunteers to get some on-the-ground training at local floods and fires first, Katrina won’t allow for that. The Red Cross plans to mobilize 9,000 volunteers for minimum two-week deployments to states affected by the hurricane in the coming weeks. They’ll staff shelters and help get food and water to victims.

While television images of houses submerged in roof-high waters, crowded shelters and hungry children may compel people to volunteer, veteran relief workers are also trying to figure out who is best for the job. Seasoned workers warn that the job takes an emotional toll.

Volunteers need to be ready to deploy with 24 hours notice. Those being trained now could leave as early as next week. Once they’re called, they can bring a backpack or duffel bag packed with essentials such as flashlights and a sleeping bag.

They will likely sleep on the floor of shelters with victims. There will be limited food and water, heat and humidity, no electricity and often, poor communication systems.

Before leaving, volunteers must go through a background check, be certified by a doctor as being in good health. Tetanus and Hepatitis A shots are recommended.

Most who came to be trained — particularly those with medical or emergency backgrounds — were undeterred. Joyce Ghent, a retired hospital nurse, said her background also prepared her for another requirement: the ability to lift 50 pounds.

“That’s nothing. I lift 250-pound men,” the petite nurse said.