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UMPI Alum helping to ‘train heroes’ with American Red Cross

When Larry French graduated from the University of Maine at Presque Isle with his degree in Criminal Justice, he never would have guessed that he’d have a future career in responding to disasters or develop a volunteer training program that would receive national attention.

But that’s exactly what French has been able to do in his first year on the job as a Disaster Program Manager for the American Red Cross in the Maine coastal territory. In this role, he’s responsible for the entire “disaster services cycle,” which includes recruitment, retention, planning, preparedness, response and recovery, for six counties in Maine, including Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, Waldo, Hancock, and Washington.

He spends a large portion of his time building relationships with local sheltering locations, food suppliers, medical equipment suppliers, and volunteers. He also studies the hazards that affect his area and works to create response plans for those alongside the local and state emergency management offices. Any time a disaster occurs, however, his focus shifts to coordinating disaster response and meeting the needs of those affected.

In fact, French was only about a week into his job the first time he had to do that. An ice storm hit the Maine coast in December 2013 and he was responsible for opening three emergency shelters and providing mass care services to nearly 100 displaced Mainers. He’s since opened one other shelter, in November 2014, and has used the experiences to analyze and improve response.

Recruiting and working with volunteers is another important part of French’s work. The American Red Cross responds to any disaster that affects people, such as a single resident of a single family home that catches fire, an apartment complex evacuated due to flooding, ice storms leaving thousands without power, or a multi-state hurricane. In Maine, the organization responded to 267 disasters last year, and with a disaster services staff of only six people, they rely on nearly 400 volunteers across the state to get the job done. French himself served as a Red Cross volunteer for a dozen years prior to taking his job.

“Maine is a huge state and a disaster anywhere often requires volunteers to drive great distances to assist, so I started looking at how to fill in the gaps,” he said. “I created a program called ‘Zero2Hero,’ which is a training program to get individuals from zero Red Cross experience to trained volunteer in two days.”

The program compresses six classes into two days by eliminating overlapping information, highlighting the most important information, and making that information easier to understand and access in less time. Zero2Hero has since been offered eight times, with several more scheduled in early 2015 throughout the state. It has also received national attention and is being implemented in whole or in parts in American Red Cross chapters in Vermont, Mississippi, and Washington state.

In praise of his work, Patricia Murtagh, CEO of the American Red Cross in Maine, said: “In addition to his enthusiasm, Larry has brought a spirit of innovation to the Red Cross. He’s always looking for ways to improve a process or enhance a service we provide for our clients. The Zero2Hero program is just one example of his process-improvement efforts.”

French said he’s pleased with what he’s been able to accomplish on the job so far and is working hard on a list of items to complete during the next year.

French credits his experiences at UMPI—including working for the student newspaper, radio station and campus security—with helping him learn how to interact with a variety of people in diverse situations. He cites his education in psychology and sociology with helping him understand why people react the way they do in disasters and crises and how he can best support them through the transition.

“More than that, UMPI helped to define who I am and helped me to find my passions,” he said. “I went to school for criminal justice and that was the springboard for knowing where I wanted to go with my life. I also interact with law enforcement a lot in my job, and it helps to have that background… I really think that these experiences from UMPI really led to both my getting this job, and being successful in doing it.”