Responding faster to disasters with streamlined volunteer dispatching

The American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois was losing precious time when responding to emergencies because of an inefficient communications system. Using Twilio Programmable SMS, the organization built a new system that makes it easy for volunteers to learn about emergencies and check in with dispatchers via text, helping the chapter decrease response times by 50%.



Messages sent to active volunteers each month


Decrease in disaster response times using Twilio vs. old system

The American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois responds to three or four disasters a day, which adds up to roughly 1,200 per year. The organization routinely provides emergency shelter, food, and clothing to victims of house fires and other emergencies in addition to services such as mental health support.

Every moment counts when you’re coordinating disaster response. Unnecessary phone calls add up quickly and can cost volunteers precious time that they could use to assist people affected by disasters.

After taking a close look at its coordination procedures, the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois decided it needed a way to streamline its emergency dispatch process and automate its volunteer coordination for improved speed and efficiency.

Twilio Products

  • Programmable SMS

American Red Cross

“We were tired of monolithic systems that weren’t really flexible. They were hard to use, clunky, and volunteers didn’t want to use them.”

Jim McGowan, director of Planning and Situational Awareness, American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois

Dispatching volunteers with Twilio-powered messaging

Previously, when a disaster struck, a volunteer dispatcher had to run down a call sheet of potential responders one at a time. The dispatcher had to place separate calls to confirm the volunteer was available and en route to the disaster, confirm that he or she arrived, and record the volunteer’s departure from the scene. This process cost valuable time needed for other critical communications. “We want our dispatchers to be able to focus on conversations with the fire departments and volunteers so they can serve people who need help,” says Jim McGowan, director of Planning and Situational Awareness for the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois.

To streamline its emergency dispatch process, the Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois reached out to the Northern California Coastal (San Francisco) chapter, which had built a new Incident Management and Volunteer Scheduling system powered by Twilio. The open-source application is called Disaster Cycle Services Operations, known as DCSOps to volunteers. Jim’s colleague, San Francisco volunteer John Laxson, built DCSOps, integrating Twilio Programmable SMS shortly after launch.

Through the Twilio-powered alert system, dispatchers can send a text message to the volunteers en masse, providing them with pertinent details about the incident. This prevents dispatchers from having to relay the same information multiple times to numerous volunteers, cutting down the dispatch cycle immensely. This system also helped level the playing field for new Red Cross volunteers eager to assist. Using the old system, new volunteers might be passed over in favor of an experienced volunteer. Now with broadcast messaging, everyone has an equal opportunity to volunteer.

“Volunteers really like it. They can schedule themselves, do what they need to do, and communicate effortlessly with our dispatchers,” Jim says.

Once the dispatcher assigns a responder, the responder can check in with a quick text message rather than a phone call. Using keywords like “Enroute” and “Arrived” and other commands, responders keep dispatchers in the loop in an instant. Texting “Maps” gives responders directions to an incident scene, and “Responders” provides the names and phone numbers of fellow volunteers.

American Red Cross

Reaching more people in less time

DCSOps is now used in major market Red Cross regions with high response zones, including New York City, Los Angeles, and San Diego, in addition to other areas accounting for 20% of the national population. According to the organization, the software has decreased response times by 50%.

Jim and John say they took an unconventional approach when developing their own dispatching system, defying the typical top-down approach to software dissemination deployed by many large organizations. And it’s paid off for the Red Cross in Chicago and Northern Illinois and many other regions.

Today, DCSOps is sending more than 3,000 messages a month and growing. In Chicago alone, 1,500 messages a month are sent to 500 active volunteers. Jim and John are hoping to share this new technology with more Red Cross regions around the country so that volunteers can reach more people affected by disasters in less time.


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