UPPER ALLEN TOWNSHIP, CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — When a disaster hits, it is often the Red Cross stepping in to help, but those volunteers need to know what to do.

“Emergencies can happen any time of the day or often at night,” said Laura Burke, Executive Director of the Red Cross Central PA chapter.

That is why it is important to be prepared, which means training. Volunteers in Cumberland County spent several hours Tuesday learning every step of setting up an emergency shelter, from checking people into setting up sleeping areas to safely serving food.

“Try and build what I call muscle memory,” said shelter lead Dean Leis.

Leis started volunteering four years ago and has helped with disasters in the Midstate as well as New Orleans and on the West Coast. Now, he helps lead these training sessions.

“Any number of our volunteers might be called to set up the shelter, to operate a shelter,” he said.

Leis adds — things move fast. Shelters need to be ready in less than two hours.

“Making sure that we’re quick to act is very, very important to us,” Burke said.

Burke said the Red Cross holds these simulations at least once a year. She said it is a chance for volunteers to learn in a low-stress environment.

“One where they can ask questions and have immediate feedback and put that into practice,” Burke said.

It is an environment different from a true emergency, where something that seems simple — like setting up cots — can get complicated.

“Again, taking into account what are the medical needs, what are the family needs and making sure that we’re able to accommodate all,” Burke said.

She added that extends to serving food as well because it is important to accommodate any health or cultural dietary restrictions.

“One of the mottos of the Red Cross is “‘Semper Gumby’, always be flexible,” Leis said.

The main goal behind all this training is getting volunteers ready to help the people who need it most.

“Our principal mission in trying to shelter people who have had their lives shredded by disaster by whatever disaster is to try and bring the calm,” Leis said.

The Red Cross is looking for more locations in Central Pennsylvania that can be used as a shelter.
Burke said any interested organizations should reach out to the Red Cross.