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Red Cross Reverses Policy Change To Limit On-Site Visits To House Fires

Officials Applaud Decision Made To Return To On-Site Responses To Fires

Red Cross in Milwaukee
Chuck Quirmbach/WPR

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is praising the American Red Cross of Wisconsin’s decision not to proceed with a controversial policy change.

The agency announced Wednesday it will continue sending volunteers out to help fire victims after facing backlash over a plan to have residents from predominantly black and Latino areas travel to them for services.

The agency rolled out a new policy in late December that called for people in 10 ZIP codes to go to a nearby police station or a Red Cross office for help. But the agency was criticized because the first ZIP codes impacted were all in Latino and black neighborhoods.

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Barrett, who met with Red Cross officials Tuesday, said Wednesday the agency made the right decision.

“I think they have a better understanding now of how many people understood or misunderstood their original decision, and they indicated to me that it was never their intent that this be a discriminatory action, but it was perceived by some to be that,” Barrett said.

Regional CEO Patty Flowers said in a statement Wednesday that the agency’s decision was “insensitive to the communities we serve.”

Flowers had said the group was short on volunteers and wanted to use staff more effectively. In her Wednesday statement, Flowers said the agency will “redouble our efforts to recruit more volunteers.”

Barrett said Wednesday he’s sure the agency can find more volunteers throughout the city, with the right approach. He also urged the Red Cross to find more volunteers to avoid similar issues in the future.

“In every single neighborhood, no matter what the level of poverty is, or the challenges that we have, there are really good people who live in those neighborhoods,” Barrett said. “If a family is facing a fire, they’re going to be there to help them. I think it’s a question of how you do the outreach to get more people involved.”

Alderman Khalif Rainey, who was critical of the policy change, said the Red Cross could have put out a call for volunteers if a lack of personnel was an issue.

“Actually bringing in the people who live in these ZIP codes, doing some public listening sessions with the members of these ZIP codes, finding out how willing they are to be engaged in the services offered by the Red Cross — I think that’s what should have initially been done, and I think that’s what should occur following the rescinding of this decision,” Rainey said.

The Milwaukee Common Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee was set to take up the Red Cross policy at its meeting Friday, but Rainey said that agenda item has been removed following the Red Cross’s Wednesday announcement.

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