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Columnist
Learning to help those who help others
By Lee Litas | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 11/11/2008 12:02 AM

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"People think of us in regard to large disasters but they don't think of us in terms of safety training," said Martha Carlos, senior manager of communications at the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago.

Since 1881, the Red Cross has been the singular source for neutral humanitarian care during times of war or natural disasters. As part of their efforts, the Red Cross also collects half the nation's blood supply. And while they are typically right behind the fire departments and police in times of crises, this is only but a portion of the lifesaving work that the organization accomplishes throughout the year.

As part of their regular services, the Red Cross trains over a quarter of a million people every year just in the greater Chicago area alone, in safety classes ranging from CPR and First Aid to Baby-sitting, Lifeguard and Water Safety, and even First Aid for pets. Yes, CPR for pets.

Safety training, according to Carlos, is an invaluable tool, often tantamount to the actual relief aid because it helps to prepare people, leaving them empowered rather than helpless during an emergency situation.

"People think we live in the Midwest and things don't usually happen here, but they do. We have floods, we have fires, even earthquakes sometimes," said Carlos. And as the weather gets colder, "particularly in this economy, people are going to start using alternative heat sources to keep their homes warm and a lot of those just aren't safe so they are going to be causing fires."

The Red Cross provides tips for creating a disaster supply kit offering sage advice that goes beyond the standard food and water recommendations. They advise making copies of valuable documents such as insurance cards and IDs; having refills of necessary prescriptions at the ready and even having a stash of small bills. This may seem unnecessary but in a power outage situation, having the small bills may mean the difference between buying a bottle of water for $1 versus $100 dollars.

"We buy health insurance and car insurance before we need them. We probably buy Band-Aids before we need them. We're not asking you to build a bunker, but you will probably feel a whole lot better if all of your documents are in one place and you have all your prescriptions," said Carlos.

Perhaps the average person may not think of these things on a daily basis, but fortunately the Red Cross does. It is this kind of preparedness that the organization seeks to promote through the information they distribute and through their classes.

Taking into account today's hectic schedules, they offer a portion of the classes online to be done at a time and level that is most convenient for everyone. Depending on the amount of participants (usually around 10), they also make "house calls," sending out instructors to work sites for training, even during a night shift, if necessary.

"We do more because it will make our community a whole lot safer," said Carlos.

Currently there are about 700 Red Cross chapters across the nation. Chicago's is the second-largest servicing a community of nearly 8.5 million people throughout a seven-county area that encompasses Lake, Cook, McHenry, DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will.

Surprisingly, there are only 100 full-time personnel to cover all of these areas. The bulk of the assistance comes from some 3000 trained volunteers. "There are teachers and disaster volunteers throughout all the suburbs," said Kathy Niebuhr, of the Mundelein office.

For more information, call the American Red Cross at 1.800.33. SAFETY or log on to chicagoredcross.org.