Red Cross Disaster Dispatcher: Sopheak Srun

Red Cross Dispatchers Help Get Disaster Response Off the Ground

by Jason Viana, Red Cross Staff, Twin Cities Area Chapter

Sopheak Srun is a volunteer disaster response dispatcher for the American Red Cross Twin Cities Area Chapter. Photo provided by Sopheak Srun.

You won’t see them in pictures, they don’t grab headlines, and most of those they help don’t even know they exist.  Yet without Disaster Action Team (DAT) dispatchers, the Red Cross disaster response would have a hard time getting off the ground.  While they may never set foot on the scene, the decisions they make and the moves they orchestrate are key to almost every Red Cross disaster response.

Twenty six-year-old Sopheak Srun recently joined the group of unsung DAT heroes as he chose to become a DAT dispatcher in the fall.  Srun spends the majority of his days working as a microbiologist and engineer at his family’s medical device assembly and packaging company in Bloomington and says he really enjoys his work as a Red Cross volunteer.  The Red Cross first crossed Srun’s radar while completing his graduate work in St. Louis and once he returned to the Twin Cities he completed training and became a DAT volunteer.

Having responded to numerous local disasters over the last two years as a DAT member, Srun already had a good understanding of the importance of dispatchers in disaster response.  However, after having become a dispatcher himself, he quickly gained a deeper appreciation of the role he now plays in coordinating Red Cross efforts.

As Srun coordinated the disaster response efforts in response to a recent house fire in St. Paul, Srun not only consoled a family who had just lost a child, but also connected them with all of the help and resources that the Red Cross had to offer.  The full-time microbiologist quickly and compassionately prepared each of the DAT members for what they were about to face and ensured that all of the proper team members were selected to respond.

“It was really sad, “Srun recalled.  “They had just lost their child and they were pretty incoherent.  I just tried to stay calm and get them all the help I could.”

Srun has learned since taking on the role of dispatcher that the key to the position is about more than calling other volunteers and passing along information, it’s really about judgment and leadership.  “We are the voice of the Red Cross to these people…we are pivotal in the response because we coordinate nearly everything,” said Srun as he looked back on his first six months as a dispatcher.  “After hours it’s just us.”

The thought of serving as a DAT dispatcher had crossed Srun’s mind on several occasions, but an email appeal from local disaster coordinator Ruth Talford convinced him to take the next step.  “It seemed like a logical extension to the work I was already doing, “Srun said.  “With my experience as a DAT first-responder I felt like I was ready for a leadership role.”

Srun has embraced his new role and found that he really enjoys coordinating the disaster response efforts of the DAT volunteers.  While the role of dispatcher has proven demanding, Srun said it also comes with its perks.  “It’s nice, I don’t really have to get up and leave in the middle of the night to actually help someone…I can do it from home.”  The smile was obvious in Srun’s voice as he described the convenience of being able to do a great deal of dispatching right from the palm of his hand…with his IPhone.

Srun says that all you really need is an internet connection, a telephone, access to the DAT list and the willingness to help people during exceptionally difficult times.  “The situations are all pretty heavy.  These people have usually lost their homes and most of their possessions.”   Srun stated matter of factly.  “But that’s the nature of our work.  I am just glad we are there to help.”

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