Red Cross doubles efforts to help local families affected by fire

Local Red Cross officials say a closer relationship with fire departments enabled them to help more families displaced by house fires in June.

The Carolina Lowcountry Chapter of the Red Cross assisted 48 people in Beaufort, Hampton and Jasper counties whose homes were damaged by fire last month -- up 400 percent from June 2009, according to a news release.

Information on the number of people assisted in Beaufort County alone was unavailable Wednesday.

Steve O'Brien, the chapter's director of emergency services, attributed the spike to improved communication among Red Cross officials and firefighters, not to an increase in fires.

"When I think about where we were last year, we've certainly done a better job of getting the word out to the community and our partners in the fire department about calling the Red Cross," O'Brien said.

Despite the slow economy, O'Brien said the increase in calls for help did not strain the organization's staff or volunteers or require local Red Cross officials to pursue additional funding.

"This is what we train and prepare for and why we seek donations from the community," O'Brien said.

Lee Levesque, spokesman for the Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District, said the agency has relied heavily on the Red Cross in the past year.

"We rarely have a problem getting a hold of those folks. We have certainly called them a lot more in the last year. There's no two ways about that," Levesque said, noting that there have been more damaging house fires in their jurisdiction this year.

Joheida Fister, spokeswoman for Hilton Head Island Fire and Rescue Division, said the division has recently been reshuffled to ensure someone contacts the Red Cross when there's a destructive house fire.

"Our setup is better now that we have someone designated to meet with people displaced by fire and ask if they need the Red Cross," Fister said.

The Red Cross has already helped 10 people in southern Beaufort County this month whose homes were damaged by fire, according to officials.