Archive | September, 2015

Did the American Red Cross collect too much Blood after 9/11?

11 Sep

The short answer is, yes and no. More on this later.

Did the Red Cross collect too much money? I would suggest, no.

Did the Red Cross receive too many volunteer offers? Yes and No.

Did the Red Cross receive too much goodwill?  This is a bit trickier to answer.

Did the Red Cross learn valuable lessons from its response to 9/11? Yes.

Did the Red Cross do its best to engage citizens and non-citizens who were in a state of shock after 9/11? Yes.


Too much blood. I was working at the American Red Cross National Office of Volunteers, Youth and Nursing on 9/11 2001. A colleague told me that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center Towers.  I watched on television as the second plane flew into the second Tower. Each event was a shock, but at the Red Cross we are used to responding to disasters. Then a third plane flew into the Pentagon.  Now the disaster was more personal.  The shock was more personal. My office was at Red Cross Square just a block from the White House. Federal office workers started flooding out on the sidewalks across the street from my office. There was great uncertainty, what would happen next. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all planes immediately across the country. Traffic outside of my office windows stopped and snarled. The American people and the rest of the world went into a state of shock.

On 9/12 the American Red Cross set up emergency blood collection centers. One of these was set up at Red Cross Square, this despite the fact that yellow police tape surrounded the Square.  No one knew what would happen next.  A radio station set up a remote broadcast just outside the building where we set up the emergency blood collection center in a large ballroom. The line of volunteers to donate blood was long and getting longer.  Volunteer blood donors were allowed to cross the yellow tape lines to line up to donate blood. I greeted   hundreds, likely a couple of thousand spontaneous blood donors, as their line stretched out the door, down one block and around another block. My message to volunteers as they joined the line, “Thank you for coming to donate blood. The wait will be several hours (eventually up to 4 hours). If you want to wait, thank you.  If you would like to get a call to schedule a time to come back and donate blood, then please fill out this form (a half sheet of paper for their contact information). Many people waited in line for several hours and donated blood.

Collect as much blood as you can! The Red Cross Blood Service officials behind the scenes were monitoring what was going on nationally. Since many of the victims of 9/11 were killed outright, the spontaneous demand for blood for the victims of 9/11 was only a bit higher than normal. However, the blood supply before the disaster was a bit low. This was normal during the summer when less people donate. On the other hand the Red Cross President and CEO was invited and walked over to the White House to speak with the President. I listened, as she came back and shared with the volunteers waiting in line to donate blood, “The President asked us to collect as much blood as we can since we don’t know what will happen next.” So the Red Cross continued to collect blood, but also shared with potential blood donors, we encourage you to schedule time to come back later.

Too much money. The American Red Cross was criticized for collecting too much money.  This was despite the fact that they clearly stated the donations were for victims of 9/11 and other disasters. At the Emergency Blood Drive a father walked in with a big bag of change and bills $1s, 5s, 10s, and 20s. “My kids walked around and collected this from neighbors.” Across the country many spontaneous fundraisers collected money for the Red Cross. Hundreds of volunteers and employees from across the country were needed to receive, count, process and deposit spontaneous donations that went into the American Red Cross Disaster Response Fund.  Millions of dollars were spent on the response every day; first from the reserves accumulated over the years in the Disaster Response Fund, and then later from the donations generated by the 9/11 response. The American Red Cross responds to over 60,000 disasters a year.  Some are huge and visible like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, most are not. Volunteers and employees of the Red Cross are always on call to help victims of family fires, to help people stranded by tropical storms, floods, fires, ice storms, or a chemical spill.  The Disaster Response Fund provides reserves so the American Red Cross can be there when Help Can’t Wait.

We want money to go directly to victims. The American Red Cross provides immediate, short-term and long-term support to victims of disaster.  Immediate support is food, shelter, perhaps clothing or a credit to purchase clothing and necessities. It also provides people support, a trained cadre of volunteers and employees, ready to respond.  They stage cots, tents, and emergency response vehicles ready to shift quickly to designated shelter sites or to drive through communities to provide food, water, and snacks.  The Red Cross provides about 40% of the nation’s blood supply. This is used for everyday life saving needs, but also for emergency needs like 9/11 or other disasters. On rare occasions such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina; the Red Cross also provides direct grants to victims in addition to needed emergency support. For large-scale disasters such as the Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11, and some hurricane responses, they also provide long-term support. Sometimes support is provided for ten or twenty years after the disaster, example to pay for psychological support and to meet other long-term needs. Careful controls are placed on how money is collected and on how donated funds are distributed. Donor intent is a key consideration.

Too many volunteer offers. During my time with the Red Cross we faced the challenge of having too many volunteer offers. During 9/11 we were able to place about 100,000 volunteers in 9/11 related response around the country. Larger numbers of volunteers were placed in New York, Boston and Arlington County, VA (site of the Pentagon attack). A thousand, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand spontaneous volunteer offers can overwhelm any Red Cross office or any community. The good news is that we were able to staff the 9/11 related response and recovery with thousands of current, but also with 10s of thousands of new spontaneous volunteers for days, weeks and months. During the following year we convened by phone the directors and chairs of volunteers from Red Cross affiliates around the country to document their lessons learned and suggestions.  We then worked with colleagues in Disaster Services to update spontaneous disaster volunteer intake procedures.

Too much goodwill. During the days and weeks after 9/11 millions of Americans donated blood, contributed time as volunteers, and made financial donations to the American Red Cross. These gifts were transferred trough services and grants to the victims of 9/11 and their families. Donated blood was used by hospitals to treat thousands of Americans. The American Red Cross received overwhelming support from individuals, corporations and the media. Did they receive too much blood? Yes, some small percentage of blood could not be used. Did they receive too much money? No, the money received was used to support the victims of 9/11 and other disasters. Did they receive too many volunteer offers? Yes, not everyone who wanted to volunteer was able to volunteer.  Note: in some cases the volume of early offers to volunteer overwhelmed local Red Cross phone systems and if an email was not collected, then it was hard to call back hundreds of potential volunteers who often were not at home when called, or not available when needed. In some cases spontaneous volunteers had even forgotten that they offered to volunteer. After a month or two of very positive proactive news articles, too much goodwill, the media and critics suddenly started challenging how the Red Cross had managed its response to the disaster.

Lessons Learned. Goodwill for the Red Cross surges very high during disaster response, but then it has to come back down to normal.  This is part of the normal cycle. The Red Cross conducted good internal reviews, asking: how can we do a better job of managing the goodwill of spontaneous blood donors, so we don’t get too much blood, while also ensuring we have a secure supply of blood during national emergencies. Systems were put into place to support a surge in spontaneous volunteers needed to support long lines of blood donors during a large-scale disaster. We developed spontaneous volunteer intake centers with phone lines remote from the Red Cross chapter headquarters for receiving, triaging, training and placing spontaneous volunteers. We also cultivated relationships with partner agencies so that we would be better able to provide a warm welcome or a warm referral to spontaneous volunteers that we could not place. The Red Cross Board of Governors looked carefully at how to better message during disasters to ensure donors knew when we had enough funds for the current disaster response and also to ensure that we were responsive to donor intent.

Personal observations. The American Red Cross was well prepared and did its best to engage citizens and non-citizens who were in a state of shock after 9/11.  I personally greeted well over 100 non-citizens who gathered to donate blood on 9/12. Some were tourists from other countries. Others were guest workers who were given the day off.  Their companies suggested they go donate blood at the Red Cross. I greeted leaders from Arab-American companies who were in Washington, DC for meetings. These non-citizens wanted to donate blood, often for the first time. They wanted to offer their sincere support of the American people.  They were shocked by the 9/11 attacks. Americans were also in shock. 

They asked how can we help?  At times like 9/11 I was very grateful that the American Red Cross, for the most part, was ready to channel the outpouring of goodwill towards helping victims of disaster. I offer my sincere thanks to the thousands of American Red Cross volunteers and employees who helped to make this happened.  I offer my thanks to the millions of Americans and many non-Americans who responded with time, blood, money and goodwill to 9/11.  May it never happen again!

Bruce Summers is the former American Red Cross national lead for volunteer engagement.  He also works as a Personal Historian helping people capture and share their life stories. 

See also…

September 11, 2014 started as a cloudy day

9/11 – Red Cross memories – 10 years later # 1

9/11 Memories – Red Cross Blood Drive – 10 Years later # 2


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