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Programs > International Social Services > Emergency Disaster Response


The American Red Cross International Disaster Response Unit

Helping Disaster Victims Worldwide



Natural disasters plague the globe almost daily.  Large disasters such as earthquakes, floods, storms, volcanoes and droughts cause deaths, destroy entire communities and create huge challenges for daily human survival.  Since 1977, natural disasters caused an average of 128,000 deaths and affected the lives of 136 million people annually.  Developing nations suffer most from natural disasters.

Combining strengths to help disaster victims worldwide
The American Red Cross is extending its strength in disaster response to assist disaster victims in developing nations.  As a leader in international disaster relief, the American Red Cross has merged resources and expertise to efficiently provide critical aid to disaster victims worldwide.  The International Disaster Response Unit (IDRU) was created to respond to disasters occurring outside of the United States and its territories.  Combining our disaster experience and international expertise, the IDRU has already responded to numerous disasters since its formation in 1999 and trained more than 70 people, available for immediate deployment, to serve in various international relief functions.

Responding to an international disaster
The American Red Cross continually monitors events around the globe.  When a catastrophic disaster occurs overseas and international assistance is requested, the American Red Cross works alongside the Red Cross society in the affected country throughout the response.  This coordination is instrumental in the provision of quick and appropriate aid to disaster victims.  The Red Cross society serves as experts in the country's culture, providing guidance to the American Red Cross on the local resources and the availability of supplies.  The role of the local Red Cross may also determine the type of assistance provided by the American Red Cross.  Every Red Cross society is different; each has different strengthens and weaknesses.  Some are known for paramedic services, while others manage hospitals.  Not all Red Cross societies are mandated to respond to disasters.  The American Red Cross is flexible, adjusting to the particular needs of disaster victims, working with the local Red Cross society and recognizing the customs of the people affected.  There are three possible forms of assistance the American Red Cross provides:

  • Cash donation to the local Red Cross society to help jumpstart the local relief operations;
  • In-kind relief items that are most often purchased in-country to reduce transportation time and cost and to help boost the local economy; and/or
  • Deployment of an international response team to provide technical assistance to the local Red Cross.

The American Red Cross may rely on other responding Red Cross and Red Crescent partners to help international disaster victims.  Due to limited resources faced by every Red Cross and Red Crescent society including the American Red Cross, critical response triggers and criteria must be met prior to initiating an emergency operations overseas.  Such protocols in responding to international disasters maintain a high standard for stewardship of donor funds, while also balancing aid to areas affected.  Too much assistance in the form of goods and services can clutter local economies, hurting the very people in need of help, by temporarily eliminating service jobs and reducing demand for basic goods.

The American Red Cross International Response Team
International Response Team members come from all over the United States and vary in age and background.  Most international response team members are involved with their local American Red Cross chapter.  Each member brings extensive disaster experience and the essential knowledge of disaster response.


International Response Teams, generally a team of four to six people, represent the American Red Cross to the local Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other Red Cross societies.  The American Red Cross is often one of the primary response organizations helping disaster victims.  The team members also interact and may coordinate relief efforts with other non-Red Cross relief organizations, such as Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services or United Nations agencies.

International response team members are knowledgeable and have experience in the following areas: international disaster relief management; water and sanitation; family linking, logistics, press, reporting and disaster mental health.  Within the first 24 hours of arrival in the affected country, the team is required to complete a damage and needs assessment, provide first-hand information as it develops and provide a comprehensive assessment of the local Red Cross, including its capacities and vulnerabilities.  The team recommends the most appropriate and effective assistance and use of American Red Cross resources to the International Disaster Response Unit.  Subsequently, team members manage relief supplies and determine the most effective methods for distribution to disaster victims.  International Response Team members are required to meet demanding objectives with flexibility and diplomacy in a short period of time, often with little rest.

International Response Team training
Offered twice a year, International Response Team training provides opportunities for candidates to refine skills and share valuable experiences and knowledge.  International disaster response and relief professionals provide instruction on:

  • procedures and requirements of damage and needs assessments and analysis.
  • specifics of the international response team core sector specialty areas -- relief supply distribution; water and sanitation; family linking; mental health and others.
  • evolving international disaster industry standards.
  • the role of an International Red Cross Movement.
  • internal American Red Cross procedures.
  • American Red Cross international core competencies.
  • adherence to and understanding of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Code of Conduct and other internationally recognized standards.

The American Red Cross receives a multitude of applications from skilled people.  Acceptance for international response team training is competitive and a maximum of 30 candidates is selected for each session.

Becoming an American Red Cross international response team member
International relief work is as rewarding as it is challenging.  Images of suffering move people to action -- they want to do something to help.  People can help disaster victims worldwide by first gaining experience and knowledge helping disaster victims in local communities.  Opportunities to join a committed group of trained disaster relief workers are available at local American Red Cross chapters.  Other requirements and expectations sought in choosing candidates for the international response team include:

  • extensive domestic/international disaster relief operations experience.
  • training and education in disaster relief principles and industry standards.
  • experience with assessments, monitoring, evaluation and analysis preferred.
  • experience working or living outside of the U.S.
  • language proficiency in French or Spanish preferred.

The American Red Cross responds to international disasters mostly in developing nations.  Often basic services, such as electricity, clean water and sanitation are non-existent.  Although the American Red Cross takes every measure to provide for the safety and well-being of international response team members, the environment is challenging, the workload stressful and assignment duration may change from the initial deployment.  All international disaster responses are considered to be hardship assignments.  Based on the nature of international relief work, candidates for the international response team must:

  • be in good health and be willing and able to endure long work hours under hardship conditions.
  • have a valid civilian passport, appropriate immunizations and a WHO immunization card.
  • be able to travel within 24 hours and accept assignments of unknown duration.
  • be flexible and adaptable.
  • have intermediate to advanced computer skills.

American Red Cross chapters nation-wide offer free disaster relief and international services training courses.  The following American Red Cross courses are free and should be completed prior to deployment overseas:

  • Orientation to International Services
  • International Relief and Development
  • Serving the Diverse Community
  • Disaster Management Training
  • International Humanitarian Law
  • International Social Services

The American Red Cross is also a leader in first aid and CPR courses.  Candidates for the international response team are expected have basic first aid and CPR training.


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