"We apologize:" Red Cross rescinds policy that called for end to on-site responses in 10 Milwaukee ZIP codes

MILWAUKEE -- The American Red Cross has rescinded a policy that ended on-site disaster responses in 10 Milwaukee ZIP codes.

"I am very pleased with the decision the Red Cross has made to continue to serve residents at their homes," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said during a Wednesday afternoon, January 3rd news conference.

Mayor Barrett said Red Cross Regional CEO Patty Flowers called him Wednesday morning to announce the policy would be rescinded.

"It was a situation where initially, they made a decision and they didn't understand the ramifications of the decision and how it would be perceived. This was not what they intended -- how it was perceived," Barrett said.

The policy impacted these Milwaukee ZIP codes:

    Instead of responding to the scene of fires and other disasters in these ZIP codes, Red Cross volunteers would instead meet with victims at the nearest police station or at the Red Cross office, in accordance with the policy.

    Fire at 21st and Concordia

    Some aldermen called the policy discriminatory and even racist. Critics said the affected areas are in predominantly black and Hispanic ZIP codes, while predominantly white areas are not included.

    "The need is greater in precisely the ZIP codes they are proposing to exclude," Alderman Bob Bauman said. "Their own headquarters is in a ZIP code they would not serve themselves."

    Red Cross Regional CEO Patty Flowers rejected the suggestion that fear of certain neighborhoods drove the decision to implement the policy. Flowers said the policy changes were based on where the most fires happen and to let families meet with Red Cross volunteers in a warm and safe place.

    Patty Flowers

    Barrett said Wednesday he was "very pleased" by the news that the policy would be rescinded, and said he and Flowers had a conversation about how the city and the Red Cross can continue to work together to serve Milwaukee residents.

    Mayor Barrett said he and Flowers have had four conversations since the new policy was announced. He explained why he believes it was so important to rescind the policy.

    "I want the people in this city to have the same services that people who live outside the city have. I don't want a differentiation based on where people live. I think that was the perception. I think what they tried to do in good faith was have people meet at a site, which is a good thing too. Patty (Flowers) was very honest and open in the four conversations I've had with her. She, from the get go, wanted to make sure I understood this wasn't a situation that was something that was intended to be discriminatory -- even though it was perceived that way. There were legitimate volunteer concerns here, and I said I want to help you with that. Let's see how we can work together. I hope we can get a new generation of Red Cross volunteers. I respect the work the Red Cross does, and I want our residents to respect what they do," he said.

    American Red Cross

    Mayor Barrett noted that adequate Red Cross volunteers are needed to respond to fire scenes and other incidents -- and called for more volunteers.

    Red Cross officials on Sunday, December 31st said they were planning on extending the policy to other parts of the city:

    Again -- the policy has now been rescinded. Below is a statement issued Wednesday by Patty Flowers:

    "In an effort to continue to serve people affected by home fires, we recently implemented new procedures in Milwaukee that we now understand were insensitive to the communities we serve.  We apologize for this mistake and will immediately return to the way we have responded to home fires in the past, consistent with American Red Cross practices and values nationwide.  While the resource constraints we have are real, and we have experienced a shortage of volunteers, we will redouble our efforts to recruit more volunteers and work with local leaders to help us do that.  The Red Cross will continue to help people in need after a home fire as soon as possible regardless of zip code."

    Alderman Khalif Rainey issued the following statement:

    "I am pleased to learn of the announcement today by the Milwaukee office of the American Red Cross that it is rescinding its decision to stop on-site volunteer response to house fires in 10 Milwaukee ZIP codes – including the 53206 ZIP code (and 53216, 53209, 53210, and 53218)  in the 7th Aldermanic District.

    "The Red Cross realized the disrespectful and poor message being sent by turning its back on thousands of Milwaukee families and residents, and rightly changed course.

    "Again, the Red Cross made the right call by reversing its decision and I want to extend my proper thanks to those who joined the strong chorus of outraged voices when the original decision first came to light. Our persistence was rewarded today with the announcement from the Red Cross."

    Alderman Bob Donovan issued the following statement:

    "I want to publicly thank the Red Cross for rescinding its decision to not respond with volunteers on-site to house fires in certain Milwaukee ZIP codes. Its announcement today that it will be going back to its full response policy reiterates my firm belief that the Red Cross hasn’t lost its way and remains committed to providing the same compassion, care and understanding it always has.

    "I have seen firsthand the support, assistance and comfort the Red Cross has provided Milwaukee families hit the hardest by tragedy and loss. Their work is outstanding and I am pleased it will continue at full strength across our great city.

    "With today’s announcement – and at the request of the Red Cross – I have pulled the scheduled Public Safety and Health Committee file that had been scheduled for Friday’s meeting at City Hall."

    CLICK HERE to learn more about the American Red Cross, and how you can become a volunteer.