By Hannah C. Wood, BPI Marketing & Communications Director

As a tribute to his late father* and to his local fire department, BPI Certified Professional Kevin Byrnes deployed as a volunteer with the American Red Cross (RC) for two weeks in September after Hurricane Harvey.

As a professional firefighter, Kevin (50) keeps in good shape. He also has significant emergency response training. But, what he didn’t have was vacation time. (You must volunteer for a minimum of two weeks for the RC to deploy you to a disaster area).

Volunteers are critical to disaster response. Kimmy Venter, Director of Communications for the American Red Cross in Northeastern New York, says, “Red Cross volunteers answer the call time and time again. In many cases, they leave their jobs, their families, and their homes for weeks at a time to provide shelter, food, and comfort to people in desperate need.”

Kevin’s boss at Simple Energy Testing LLC (SET), Matt Gates, knew that Kevin had no leave time. So he gave Kevin paid time off for two weeks. According to Kevin, Matt’s support was “as cool a thing as I’ve ever had an employer do for me.”

Some states, like New York, have disaster leave laws on the books to help accommodate more RC disaster response volunteers. These laws allow workers, such as state agency employees, to take up to 20 days of “disaster leave” to volunteer for Red Cross disaster relief assignments.

Within 24 hours of talking to the RC, Kevin was on a flight to Corpus Christi, Texas. He was sent to work at Ben Garza gym, which had been converted into a shelter. Over 185 people had sought shelter there.

The situation at the shelter, and in the surrounding neighborhood, was quite difficult; it was an economically depressed area of town. Of the 185 shelter residents, about five or six families had completely lost their homes in the hurricane. However, most of the shelter residents were people from the neighborhood who just needed general help.

Kevin, and the other volunteers, worked twelve-hour days. Kevin spent his time comforting people and processing people in and out of the shelter. Says Kevin, “I gave out a lot of hugs and de-escalated situations. They just needed a responsible human being there.”

Another challenge was the unsolicited food and clothing donations to the shelter. “The Red Cross needs people and money – not second-hand items showing up at shelters,” says Kevin. The donated fresh food was “a time bomb” causing fruit flies and huge amounts of waste.

Kevin formed close relationships with the other five volunteers. They came from Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana, and Nevada. Another volunteer, Tom, from Albany, New York, had been the shelter manager at the church across from Ground Zero during the days after 9/11.

During the evenings, Kevin stayed at the First Southern Baptist Church, on Corpus Christi Drive – a shelter set up for RC staff. Even when he arrived late in the evenings, a hot and scrumptious meal cooked by church parishioners was waiting for him.

Back at the Ben Garza shelter, with the leadership of Pastor Dave, a former US Army sergeant and Baptist minister from Iowa, the shelter inhabitants went from 185 to zero in just six days. Kevin observed staff from FEMA, RC Relief, and HUD working together to find the resources and relocate all the shelter residents.

After the shelter was closed, Kevin was taken to a doctor to get treatment for what-had-become pneumonia. When he arrived at the Ben Garza gym a week prior, Kevin, on his own initiative, had spent hours cleaning the heavily-used and non-ventilated shower rooms. The doctor gave him a combination of a high-end antibiotic, Zithromax (Z-Pak), and a steroid.

After two days of recovery, Kevin was then sent to drive an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) in the Texas countryside. After another five days as an ERV driver, he returned to Minnesota on Friday, September 29th.

When asked how he thinks others can help, Kevin asserts that people aren’t needed for their skills per se; they are needed for being caring and compassionate human beings.

He hopes more companies’ owners will give their employees the paid time off to serve. Without it, Kevin said he wouldn’t have been able to afford to have done it. He also thinks it would better support aid agencies, like the Red Cross, if volunteers representing all age groups could serve as volunteers.

I ask him, would you do it again? “The whole experience was a pretty challenging event,” but, he adds, “I would do it again.”

He also had support back home. His wife of 25 years “humble-bragged” on social media about him while he was gone. That reaffirmed to Kevin that he was doing the right thing. “It takes a lot to impress my girl,” Kevin adds.

*In February of this year, Kevin lost his father, John, at 88. John Byrnes had done a lot of fundraising for the developmentally disabled in the Chicagoland area and was active with the Knights of Columbus.

Kevin Byrnes is a BPI Building Analyst, Air Leakage Control Installer, and Healthy Home Evaluator. He works for Simple Energy Testing LLC (SET) in Eagan, Minnesota. Kevin lives in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. On top of his job at SET, Kevin is a professional (non-career) firefighter.

Author Hannah C. Wood and Senior Marketing and Communications Associate, Quinn Korzeniecki, volunteer on the Red Cross Disaster Public Affairs Team serving Northeastern New York.