My Biggest Accomplishment

By Aria Nelson/American Red Cross Intern

Red Cross intern Aria Nelson
Red Cross intern Aria Nelson. Photo credit: Charlotte Bernsohn/American Red Cross.

I’m so happy I had the chance to be an intern with the American Red Cross.  As a senior at Winona State University majoring in Health Promotion, I needed a 600-hour internship to graduate in May. I came across the preparedness internship in my search, and man am I happy I did!

When I began my internship in January, my task was simple:  find and fill gaps in fire safety knowledge in the community. After much research and discussion, I focused my efforts on children. I turned to the Red Cross preparedness team for help with creating a fire safety event for children from scratch. After weeks of planning, revising, and set building, it was gratifying to see the event come to life on April 3.

It was exciting to see around 100 kids stream into the recreation room at the Boys and Girls Club in St. Paul and interact with each of the six fire safety stations we had created.  Each interactive station focused on a specific fire safety topic: creating an escape plan, cooking safety, fire hazards in the home, how to make an emergency kit and be prepared, candle safety, and how to get low and go.

An interactive education station during the “fire safety academy.” Photo credit: Charlotte Bernsohn/American Red Cross.

While facilitating the event, I noticed how the children were engaged at each station. I was happy to see the children making connections and truly learning lifesaving information about home fire safety.  For example, I remember watching a girl take time to think about how to escape from her house during a fire and then drawing it on graph paper. The need for this event was driven home when a boy came up and said, “I live in an apartment and I have no idea how I would get out.”

Through my internship experience at the American Red Cross I’ve done a variety of things, from gathering and assessing preparedness surveys to presenting, on my own, to community groups as well as to children in schools. Presentations became one of my favorite things to do. You would have never heard me say that in college!

I’ve been reflecting on my experience at the Red Cross. I can’t imagine having been anywhere else. I’m so grateful for this opportunity, the people I’ve met along the way, and the incredible amount of experience I have gained.  A special thanks to those who helped with the “fire safety academy” for children. Everyone did an amazing job educating and engaging the children. My hope is that this program will carry on when I am gone.

 Click here to learn more about Red Cross opportunities.


For a while, they called me Firestarter

Story by Grace Littlefield (pictured left), an American Red Cross volunteer based in Bemidji, Minnesota

As we enter the busy season for house fires, I can’t help but think of when I accidentally started one myself as a teenager. It happened so much faster than I ever imagined it could, and the terrifying experience has made fire safety and preparedness an extremely important part of my home life (and now as a volunteer with the American Red Cross).

Unlike the more common cause of house fires in our area (improper heating sources), though, the one I was involved in started because of…fried ice cream.

My older brother, Sam, went to Purdue in West Lafayette, IN for civil engineering. He and his girlfriend lived in an apartment complex not far from campus, which housed around 30-40 people. My parents, little brother and I went to visit him regularly.

Still in high school, I made it a point every time we visited to impress him somehow with new knowledge I’d gained over the months since I’d last seen him. I did not want him thinking that just because he was in college that I couldn’t whip out a few culturally interesting tidbits that would wow him and his girlfriend. During one visit, I insisted that I make fried ice cream for dessert. So culturally interesting, right? (I’d been making it constantly since the previous semester of Spanish class because I couldn’t cook much else for a particular assignment and come on, fried ice cream is good.)

For those not familiar with the process of making fried ice cream: yes, actual frying is involved. You have to heat your oil and plop a little ball of ice cream — coated in flour or cereal or whatever — in it, and then quickly take it out of the oil and put it on a plate. A few sprinkles, chocolate syrup, caramel, whipped cream, etc., and BOOM. Delicious fried ice cream.

You have to watch the oil, though. That was the first thing I’d learned when going over the recipe; if the oil gets too hot, it could start on fire and oil fires are not easily put out.

HA! How could anyone be so stupid as to not watch the oil? Even before learning how to make this, it was a no-brainer that unattended, burning-hot oil was a recipe for disaster. After dinner, I put the oil on the stove and talked and talked and talked with Sam and his girlfriend, trying to be cool and seem like I knew things about politics and literature. There was suddenly a smell that wafted in from the kitchen, which I thought was burning hair but was not.

After a few seconds, I felt like an idiot. And then I panicked. With all the hubbub of the evening, I had completely forgotten that approximately 30 minutes before, I had put two cups of oil into a pot and turned the heat on their electric stove all the way up (we’d finished dinner and I started late, so I was in a hurry to get it going). I ran into the kitchen, where the pot had caught entirely on fire and sparks were leaping from the pot to the walls, quickly turning the wallpaper brown then black. My parents and little brother ran around trying to find a fire extinguisher, which was not immediately found. Sam was trying to smother the flames with towels, which only caught fire themselves. The kitchen became too hot to stand in.

As I was turning to run out of the kitchen, I laughed out loud. There was a pan hanging on the opposite wall! I could just put the pan on the top of the oily pot and this whole stupid mess will be over!

It was a somewhat smart move, and it did work—for a moment. However, the walls were still burning and the oil on the stove was smoking so much that I knew I needed to get out of there anyway.

Someone had finally called the fire department and people in the other apartment units were spilling out onto the sidewalk because of the dense smoke.

My dad, however, was nowhere to be seen. We were freaking out, trying to figure out whether he was still inside or not. Within moments, we were given an answer: he ran out of the apartment building and threw the burning hot pot outside. (I was standing right there and was hit by some of the oil, which sucked, but he was later forgiven.) He had grabbed flour-coated washcloths WITH HIS BARE HANDS, scooped up the pot and sprinted outside to save the building and whoever was still inside. The pot continued to burn, and he fell to the ground as his hands bubbled up from the red-hot metal.

My nickname was “Firestarter” for a while after that.

There were a few things that could have gone better in this scenario, a few of which you have probably already thought of:

  1. DO NOT LEAVE OIL BURNING UNATTENDED. Stand in the kitchen. Have your dialogue partners join you, if you really need the company.
  2. Know where the fire extinguisher(s) is/are in your environment (even if you’re just visiting). Get a Class K fire extinguisher for your kitchen, too — a lot of people only have Class A/B/C fire extinguishers, which are useless for grease fires.  (We found this out the hard way after someone actually found the fire extinguisher and tried to use it.)
  3. Don’t run back into a burning building/don’t be a hero. My dad, despite throwing the burning pot outside and probably saving the building from completely burning down, did not need to run back inside. Not only did he severely burn his hands (he couldn’t work for two months because they melted, more or less), but the hot oil hit me, too. We also later found out that most of the apartment building’s tenants, hearing their fire alarms going off and smelling smoke, had already evacuated the apartment building, as per the emergency evacuation plan given to them on move-in day. The building, as is required by law, was covered by insurance and so was I; it would have been devastating for people who lost their homes, but at least he wouldn’t have put his life at risk.
  4. Keep a ton of baking soda in your kitchen, just in case. Baking soda neutralizes oil fires better than flour or other commonly-used baking ingredients.
  5. Have an emergency evacuation plan for your dwelling. Sam, bless his heart, was trying to put out the fire instead of directing people where they should go. Again, don’t be a hero — just stick to the plan and keep people’s safety at the forefront of your mind.

During the past six weeks or so, the American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region has helped more than 10o families affected by fires at home. Most house fires start in the kitchen. To get more house fire safety tips click here

Thanks Grace for sharing your story. We like the name Grace a lot more than Firestarter.

%d bloggers like this: