On a hazy May evening, Ed Mechmann, an attorney by day, received a call about a fire on Bruce Avenue in Yonkers. Within the hour, he was evacuating tenants from a scorched apartment complex and bussing them to The Peter Chema Sr. Community Center, just a few blocks over.
Mechmann is part of a Red Cross first responders team called the Disaster Action Team, a group of trained volunteers who put themselves on speed dial for when emergencies break out. He and his colleague Dan Roberts, working with the Yonkers Office of Emergency Management team, were part of a group that rescued 13 residents and helped prevent any injuries or casualties from the fire.
“Almost everyone I spoke to was looking forward; they were thinking: What’s my next step? Where do I have to go? We want to get people moving forward from incidents like this,” Mechmann says.
On a typical disaster-response call, he and his co-volunteers spend hours working with distressed victims, from evacuation to relocation to calming them and filling out casework. With empathetic voices and smiles on their faces, many of these volunteers are making highly traumatic experiences feel just a bit more bearable.
In the case of the Bruce Avenue fire, Mechmann and Roberts were thankful that the Yonkers Emergency Management team moved quickly and almost immediately opened the community center, to which pizza, snacks, and other refreshments were brought. After completing multiple interviews and collecting background on the victims (the Red Cross’ database is composed of casework that determines what kind of support victims will need post-emergency), the Disaster Action Team gave victims financial assistance in the form of debit cards to help residents to find hotels, food, and simply get by in the interim.
Brittany Matthews, 29, lived in the Bruce Avenue building for two and a half years with her two-year-old daughter and puppy. Despite losing most of her personal belongings in the fire, she feels fortunate that she and her daughter weren’t home during the incident and that the puppy was rescued by firefighters.
“Thank God we weren’t home,” Matthews says. “It’s been a little difficult, but I’m trying as fast as I can to put my daughter in another apartment, so we can continue with our lives.”
The Red Cross team assisted Matthews in finding a new apartment with a referral letter to the Department of Social Services as well as referrals to other forms of emergency assistance, including SNAP and medical benefits.
“The process, to do this by yourself, is almost impossible,” Matthews adds. “[The Red Cross team] definitely made it easier.”
Chipanthony Lionel, 47, was one of the tenants in the building at the time of the fire who was transported to the Chema Community Center in the hours following the evacuation. “I would have been on the streets,” Lionel says, “because I have nobody to stay by in Yonkers.”
A nine-month resident of the Bruce Avenue building, he was thankful that the team responded with haste. “I’ve never been through this before,” he says. “Overall, my experience with the Red Cross for the first time was, on a scale of one to 10, a 10.”
“All the incidents we respond to are crazy and unique in their own way,” says Roberts. On that rainy day, Roberts, a Disaster Action volunteer since early 2022, was thankful not to have had the tough conversations about where victims might be living while underneath a downpour. “Luckily, we were able to meet with everyone and get their assistance.”
Of course, Westchester’s Disaster Action Team responds to a fraction of the roughly 60,000 emergencies the Red Cross responds to each year, most of which will not grab large headlines due to their local and personal nature. In some cases, people are out of their homes for weeks or months and must relocate permanently.
Once logged into the database, victims like Matthews and Lionel work with social services and Red Cross caseworkers to rebuild their lives. Whether it’s losing a home to fire or a natural disaster, the Disaster Action Team’s job in the immediate aftermath is crucial in ensuring long-term recovery for victims.
“Volunteers help around 1,000 people a year in Westchester,” says Mary Davis, a decade-long Red Cross worker who started as a logistics volunteer. In the hundreds of small fires and other disasters that displace families and residents in Westchester, many happen in the late-night hours.
Davis, who is on-call for overnight shifts from midnight to 8 a.m. three nights a week, often ends a shift with a sunrise, feeling, as she puts it, “rewarded.”
“As I drive home, I know I’ve already made a difference that day, and it’s only daybreak,” she says.
If you would like to volunteer with the Red Cross to help make a difference in the lives of Westchester residents, visit redcross.org/volunteer. Or call 1.800.RED.CROSS (1.800.733.2767).
Red Cross Facts
The Disaster Action Team’s primary goal is to facilitate the process of recovery by providing comfort, financial assistance if necessary, and a point of contact for Red Cross team members to follow up.
A plethora of volunteers are on-call nightly, on shifts from 6 p.m. to midnight and midnight to 8 a.m.
Teams can assist upwards of 50 or more victims at a time, depending on the scale of the emergency.
Most DAT teams respond within an hour of all emergency calls.
90% of Red Cross workers are volunteers.
Fran Kilinksi is a freelance health and wellness writer based out of Queens. A former New York Daily News reporter and Equinox Top 100 Trainer, he holds his master’s in journalism from CUNY Newmark Graduate School and currently runs his own full-service coaching business, Levolution Athletics.