AIKEN - Thanks to a new law in South Carolina, state employees willing to help in emergency situations may obtain the required skills and time away from work to offer their services.
In early August, Gov. Jim Hodges signed into law the Disaster Relief Act, which provides paid leave to state employees willing to assist the American Red Cross in aiding victims of fires and natural disasters.
The Red Cross requires volunteers who want to serve with Disaster Services Human Resources to undergo several training courses and earn Red Cross certification for general disaster assignments outside their own communities.
Mandatory training courses include an introduction to disaster services and standard first aid. To certify, trainees also must pass one basic course, either mass care, emergency assistance to families or damage assessment.
"The DSHR is a national Red Cross system that's been in existence for several years. We would hope state employees interested in doing this volunteer time with the Red Cross would get trained and would become part of that system," said Mike Burkhart, interim director of the Aiken County Chapter of the American Red Cross. "The system enables you to work on a disaster outside your own home area, where you'd normally volunteer."
According to Mr. Burkhart, volunteers on the register are listed by specialty - shelter managers, damage assessment and so on. The Red Cross chapter covering the disaster area puts a request into the registry for specialized assistance as its own resources are expended, and volunteers go to work in the affected area for two to three weeks.
"If we have a disaster of, say, a week's duration, local volunteers might be working 24 hours a day. You can run through your basic core of volunteers pretty quickly. If state employees are trained, that gives us a huge boost in number of personnel," Mr. Burkhart said.
The South Carolina Red Cross State Service Council has been pushing for the Disaster Relief Act to become law for about 15 years, according to council chairman Scott Singer. One member of the board of directors of the Piedmont Chapter of the Red Cross donated her professional services as a lobbyist to help secure passage of the bill, which had the support of Gov. Hodges, whose wife, Rachel, is a former chairman of the Red Cross' Lancaster chapter.
South Carolina is the 38th state to adopt the policy, and such corporations as Cellular One, Exxon and Prudential Life Insurance of America have similar disaster-leave policies in place.
"Senator Tommy Moore (District 25) and a senator from Spartanburg introduced the bill in the Senate this session," Mr. Singer said. "The Senate took the leadership role in getting this passed. The bill that was adopted was the Senate version of the bill, which allows up to 15 days paid leave for state workers to go out on assignment in disaster or emergency."
The Aiken County Chapter of the American Red Cross offers training classes to qualify volunteers for the DSHR, Mr. Burkhart said, and works with nearby chapters, including those in Augusta and Columbia, to get training to volunteers where and when it is needed. The Red Cross is always in need of qualified volunteers to join the registry, he said, and it is hoped the new law will help swell the ranks.
"Certainly the Red Cross is always looking for greater involvement with volunteers everywhere, so this will provide another avenue. Once these people are trained, it will also give us an additional number of volunteers to tap for a large disaster," Mr. Burkhart said.
Those interested in becoming certified to join the DSHR may call the Aiken chapter of the American Red Cross at 641-4152.
Suzanne Stone at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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