UPDATE 1/03 2:06 p.m. -- The Red Cross has decided to end their controversial new ZIP Code policy which would have stopped volunteers from responding to emergencies on-site in certain areas, Mayor Tom Barrett announced Wednesday.
The agency will immediately return to its old protocol for responding to fires, he said.
The Red Cross released the following statement shortly after Barrett broke the news:
In an effort to continue to serve people affected by home fires, we recently implemented new procedures in Milwaukee that we now understand were insensitive to the communities we serve. We apologize for this mistake and will immediately return to the way we have responded to home fires in the past, consistent with American Red Cross practices and values nationwide. While the resource constraints we have are real, and we have experienced a shortage of volunteers, we will redouble our efforts to recruit more volunteers and work with local leaders to help us do that. The Red Cross will continue to help people in need after a home fire as soon as possible regardless of zip code.
Check back often for updates on this developing story.
A policy that keeps Red Cross volunteers from certain Milwaukee ZIP codes has become a point of contention.
The organization says is aimed at efficiency but after public outcry, the city of Milwaukee says there is more work to be done to ensure fairness.
"It was a very open, candid conversation," said Mayor Tom Barrett said. "It was a good conversation but we agreed there is more work that needs to be done."
TODAY'S TMJ4 learned the organization would not be going on-site for fire victims in 10 ZIP codes through the heart of the city. These ZIP codes are in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods and brought up concerns of racially profiling where they would visit.
Barrett met with the Regional CEO of the American Red Cross to discuss its ZIP code policy Tuesday.
"When people look at the map as to the areas not begin served, that raised questions," Barrett said. "I don't want a separate but equal policy here. I want to make sure you're getting the same treatment for all individuals throughout this entire metropolitan area. She assured us, that was not their intent. This was a volunteer issue."
The Red Cross says they will still assist any family who is a victim of a fire but at different locations away from the site of the fire. They said this was a matter of efficiency and safety last week.
"We're always looking at ways to keep people safe and warm," said Patty Flowers, Regional CEO of the American Red Cross last week. "That's the number one thing for all of us. It's our volunteers, clients, everyone involved. If you've been at a fire scene, it's chaotic. The firemen are fighting the fire. The police are there to keep us safe. It's nice to get away from it and talk to people without the sirens and lights going."
From a safety perspective, Barrett says he was not under the impression there were any individual incidents for the volunteers.
"Driving to [the scene], they may have witnessed things or seen things," Barrett said. "She did not indicate any volunteers had been adversely affected directly."
The American Red Cross was not available for an interview today but released the following statement.
"The American Red Cross understands that a recent change in our home fire response procedures in Milwaukee has created concerns. We apologize for any misunderstanding as it was absolutely not our intent to offend anyone.
Moving forward, the Red Cross will continue to evaluate our response procedures to ensure both consistency and the safety of our volunteers and the people we serve. The Red Cross will also be reaching out and meeting with local community groups and local officials in the days and weeks ahead.
Every year, the American Red Cross responds to nearly 64,000 disasters around the country, most of which are home fires. This is not changing in Milwaukee. The Red Cross will continue to help any person in need after a home fire, regardless of their ZIP code.
When home fires occur, the Red Cross works to put some kind of normalcy toward very difficult and challenging situations, and our intention is to provide safe and warm locations for those affected by home fires to get out of the elements and receive Red Cross assistance as soon as possible.
In Milwaukee, the Red Cross has partnered with the Milwaukee Police and Fire Departments, who have offered four of their precinct locations to support those impacted by home fires to receive Red Cross assistance, meet with Red Cross teams in person, and help to start their recovery process in a warm and safe environment; another of these locations includes the Red Cross office at 2600 W. Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee. The Red Cross will ensure transportation is available if needed.
This new procedure is based on an assessment of where the majority of fires occur, surveying volunteer disaster responders, and through meetings with the Milwaukee Police and Fire Departments and Red Cross leadership to determine the best way to manage the needs of the community.
Each American Red Cross region around the country operates independently, but within national Red Cross guidelines, and operations are adjusted to fit the needs of those we serve and the local community. Other cities, communities and rural areas throughout the country may also adjust their procedures accordingly for helping fire victims, but Red Cross services have a primary goal to help families in need.
We will always respond and assist anyone who has a house fire. Since Dec. 22, we have assisted at seven fires under this new procedure. All families were taken care of and we will work with them in the weeks ahead as they recover. We are working to expand this new procedure to other parts of Milwaukee.
The Red Cross depends on dedicated volunteers to help local families after home fires, and is always looking to expand our ranks. If you are interested in learning more about the Red Cross or becoming a volunteer please go on www.redcross.org/volunteer."
Barrett says they discussed including more ZIP codes in the policy but there is no word from the Red Cross on which ZIP codes and when they'll be implementing it to their policy.