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Red Cross Modernizes Armed Forces Emergency Services

By Master Sgt. Stephen Barrett, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 24, 1997 – Budget restraints and technology upgrades are changing the way the American Red Cross will support troops in the 21st century. However, Armed Forces Emergency Services officials are reassuring service members the planned upgrades will not affect their support to them.

"Throughout this transition, we want to make sure service members see no difference in the support we provide," said Sue Richter, vice president of Armed Forces Emergency Services. "There will be a lot of changes, but most won't be seen by the average person who picks up the phone and needs help."

Last February, the American Red Cross board of governors approved a modernization plan that emergency services officials hope to complete by fiscal 2000. Spread over three-years, officials said the plan will upgrade technology and consolidate services. It will also provide more volunteer opportunities for those serving at installation Red Cross chapters.

The organization will continue providing emergency communications and crisis assistance to service members. It will continue to provide volunteers to military hospitals and veterans centers and to staff offices on military installations that have combat or training centers. However, the Red Cross will no longer fund emergency loans and financial grants. It is also cutting nationally funded positions supporting Red Cross course instruction at bases worldwide, looking instead to local Red Cross offices for this support.

Like federal agencies, the American Red Cross has been downsizing. Over the last five years, Red Cross' Armed Forces Emergency Services saw its annual budget reduced from $30 million to $20.1 million. It also suffered a 45 percent cut in nationally funded staff members and saw additional cuts coming that would further degrade Red Cross services.

"We continued our normal support to our service members during this downsizing," said Julie Burger, director of Armed Forces Emergency Services' modernization program. "But it's now at the point that we cannot afford to conduct business under the old guidelines using outdated technology. Things had to change, and that meant a full-scale modernization."

The first change begins July 1, when the Red Cross begins testing its new case management center at Fort Sill, Okla. -- the prototype for future armed forces Red Cross centers. In this test, the Sill center will support 17 military installations in eight states. For example, service members on those bases who need help will call their local base Red Cross office, which will patch them immediately to Sill.

"A majority of our casework -- 90 percent of what we do -- is handled by telephone," said Richter. "Technology exists to enable an airman at Grand Forks Air Force Base, [N.D.] with a family emergency to call his local base Red Cross number and he's connected to Fort Sill. Chances are, he won't even notice. This cuts down on the number of full-time workers we need at each base, yet still provides the same basic services needed to relay emergency news and information."

Richter added the program also works for families looking to contact service members. By simply calling their local Red Cross chapter, the family's emergency call goes to the Red Cross hub, where the message then travels through the unit commander or direct to the service member.

The Sill test center will support Forts Riley and Leavenworth, Kan.; Fort Chaffee, Ark.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; Fort Polk, La.; Camp Ripley, Minn.; Altus, Tinker and Vance Air Force bases, Okla.; Grand Forks and Minot Air Force bases, N.D.; Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.; Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.; McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.; Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.; and Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

Based on test results, Armed Forces Emergency Services hopes to consolidate its other stateside offices into regional centers in 1998 and to create overseas case centers by 2000. In doing so, the service plans to cut nationally funded stateside Red Cross offices from 145 to 50 or less by 2000. It also hopes to reduce its overseas offices from the 68 branches currently operating.

Although the Sill center will be the first "official" test site, the concept of consolidated centers is not new. Richter said there is a centralized Red Cross office in Stuttgart, Germany, already handling after-hours emergency communications for service members in Europe. There is also a centralized Red Cross facility in San Diego, serving military personnel in Southern California.

In those cases, Richter said, nationally funded Red Cross workers continue to staff base offices to provide the remaining services, forwarding case work to the 24-hour centers. The new case management centers will connect installation Red Cross offices into regional locations to handle all emergency cases and communications.

The Red Cross said it plans to maintain about 50 offices at locations supporting combat and training missions, and at the military's major medical facilities. It plans to transfer management of the remaining Red Cross services to local Red Cross chapters, beginning in fiscal 1999.

Both Burger and Richter said the local offices will continue to play a major role in Red Cross support. They said a variety of Red Cross programs are available at the local level, and these will continue.

"Part of the reason we're making these changes is the duplication of effort," said Burger. "Programs we're funding at the base level are also available locally. This change allows local chapters to expand their services to a larger audience. They offer the same water safety, first aid, CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and other classes that service members and their families want and need."

Richter added local chapters are also looking to tap into the military's pool of experienced Red Cross volunteers to help staff satellite centers and provide aid in and around the bases. "This is a great chance to expand the important relationships between the base and the civilian community," she said.

"Local chapters are looking for military troops and family members willing to work as Red Cross volunteers in their programs. This would provide even more opportunities for those who used to limit their volunteering to base activities," she said.

While the Red Cross hopes technology and modernization will help streamline customer services, one casualty of modernization is its emergency grant and loan program. Burger said it came down to available funds and a duplication of effort.

Last year, the Red Cross funded nearly $8 million in emergency support to service members. Armed Forces Emergency Services handed out $1 million of that amount in financial grants. Meanwhile, the military aid societies -- able to replenish their funds with ongoing campaign drives -- were also providing financial loans to their service members. To Burger and the Red Cross, the loan program was a duplication of effort.

"They're designed to help their service members in time of need. That's why they're there. We supplemented that support with our own loan and grant program," Burger said.

After July 1, the Red Cross will no longer fund financial grants and will start phasing out of the loan business. Armed Forces Emergency Services is coordinating with the three military aid societies on a interim program that would allow the Red Cross to provide money through the aid societies.

"If there is an emergency situation, a service member could come to us and we'd contact the aid society," said Richter. "If they approve the loan, we can provide the funds, then the aid society will reimburse us."

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