Help: What to do during home emergencies


Senior Editor for Niche Publications of the Billings Gazette

You and your family are the first responders to any home emergency.

In the moments before the fire department and paramedics come, it’s up to homeowners to know their next move so they can react with caution and get out of harm’s way.

Practicing home emergency drills, having a crisis to-go bag and lowering risks are all ways to be ready when disaster strikes.

Prepare for the worst so you can expect the best outcome with these safety tips.

Prioritize people, not property

Michelle Kay, a six-year American Red Cross of Montana volunteer in Billings, responds to mostly wildfires and flooding disasters. Ninety-percent of what she responds to within city limits are home fires.

Through her work with the American Red Cross’s home fire safety campaign, Kay has collaborated with the Billings Fire Department, ensuring homeowners have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in every living space and bedroom. She recommends having detectors by the furnace and water heater, as that is where carbon monoxide leaks are most likely.

michelle kay

Portable heaters, dry Christmas trees with lights on them, turkey fryers and unattended candles are some reasons the local Red Cross office receives several calls weekly for home fires during the holiday season.

And it’s the homeowners reflecting on the home emergency that gives Kay cause for concern. They tell her, “‘I tried to grab one more thing, you know?’” Kay said.

“Everybody kind of tries to stay a little bit longer than they should,” she said. “You can’t replace a life. Nothing is worth losing your life over your home.”

Kay says you want to be able to get out of the house in two minutes, and have two ways to escape from any room.

Arlington Home Fire Campaign 2016

Worksheets are available online to draw out a fire escape plan.

“Let your kids know what it looks like so they’re not scared,” she said. “Have a meeting place, whether it’s across the street or down the street.”

Driven to be safe

Because escaping is more important than grabbing belongings during a house fire, Kay says to store emergency supplies in your car, where they’re more likely to be used.

“(Homeowners) should already have a winter preparedness kit in the car,” she said.

But for homes in areas prone to wildfires, kits can also be kept near the front door with important documents like house deeds. Homeowners may have more time to react in those instances.

According to the Yellowstone County 2011 Emergency Operations Plan, flooding is ranked priority number one for natural hazards in a risk-based assessment; wildfires and urban fires are ranked second and eighth, respectively. Winter storms have the highest probability for disaster. The assessment, conducted in 2004 and updated in 2010, bases priority on the estimated probability and impact of the hazard.

In deep water

Phil Witschi, co-owner of Big Sky Disaster Restoration in Billings, says water damage is a more prevalent home emergency than fire or smoke. The business receives several water-related calls to every fire- or smoke-related one.

As flooded basements, leaky roofs and broken pipes are discovered, Witschi says that’s when homeowners should be notifying someone.

“If you wait, all it takes is about 70-degrees temperature, a little bit of moisture, some source of food, and mold is growing,” he said.

Many homeowners don’t notice the emergency until water is coming in through a wall.

The degree of damage depends on where the water originated. Water coming from within the home is safer than water coming from outside. Ground water ruins carpeting since it carries animal feces and other bacteria.

Aside from the usual culprits of water damage – broken sprinkler lines, pipes and hose bits – Witschi says many homeowners don’t notice ice dams forming in eaves. Ice dams form when snow melts and refreezes.

Built for shedding water that gradually drops, roofs are not sealed water-tight and moisture can move beneath shingles and leak into the house, he said.

“We have trouble praying for the Lord to bless our business because that means catastrophe for other people,” said Witschi. “You have to be cognizant of the hazards.”

Winter weather advisory

An October 28, 2016 article authored by Jannel Okeson on Montana’s official state website,, says there have been 27 fatalities in Montana from extreme winter weather since 2000, mostly due to automobile accidents, avalanches and cold weather exposure. The article outlines what homeowners should store in their vehicles, as well as carry in their homes if storm conditions persist for more than one day.

Although following weather reports is a traveler’s first line of defense, the government suggests drivers carry the following: a mobile phone and charger; blankets and sleeping bags; a flashlight with extra batteries; a first-aid kit; extra clothing; a shovel, windshield scraper and brush; a tool kit; a tow rope; battery booster cables; a water container; a compass and road maps; high-calorie, non-perishable food; a small can and waterproof matches to melt snow for drinking water; and a knife.

Because loss of heat, power and communications are likely in severe winter weather, precautionary items to keep in the home include: a flashlight and extra batteries; a battery-powered NOAA weather radio; extra food, water, medicine and baby items; first-aid supplies; an emergency heat source; heating fuel; a fire extinguisher; smoke alarms (tested monthly) and food, water and shelter for pets and livestock.

Residents of communities impacted by severe winter storms can use the American Red Cross website to notify friends and family of their wellbeing or call 1 (866) GET-INFO.

This story first appeared in the Billings Gazette.

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Kalispell man ventures into unknown during deployment

Highlight Quote

Kind gesture builds lifetime of loyalty


GREAT FALLS, MT — One elderly gentleman’s simple act of kindness 48 years ago started Patrick Terry down a path of generosity that continues to this day.

The year was 1969 and Terry was stationed in Germany with the Air Force when he learned his father had passed away. Terry was headed home to attend his father’s funeral when he became stranded at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, still almost 3,000 miles from his final destination in San Jose, Calif. He had no money and there were no immediate Air Force flights available. Terry was sleeping in the airport terminal when an elderly Red Cross volunteer woke him and offered him enough money to get him back in time for the funeral. It was a small loan that Terry paid back as soon as he made it home.

“I will never forget that elderly gentleman who got up in the middle of the night to help me out,” Terry said. “That one act of kindness was my incentive to get involved in Red Cross.”

Some 48 years later, Terry continues to give back, both as a volunteer blood courier and a frequent blood donor. He estimates he’s made 660 donations through the years, much of them platelets.

During a media interview following his 400th donation, Terry commented that he had never actually met anyone who had received the blood he had donated. Shortly afterward he got an email from someone on the Hi-Line who had benefited, thanking him for taking the time to donate and volunteer.

“There used to be a slogan for blood donations that all you feel is good,” he said. “I’ve gotten great satisfaction out of it.”

To volunteer or become a blood or platelet donor visit


Red Cross brings smoke alarms, peace of mind to Missoula family


MISSOULA, MT — Lexie Hickey opened her front door in Missoula to find American Red Cross volunteers on a mission to ensure her family was safe from a home fire.

“I almost never answer the door for people I don’t know because I’m home alone with my three children,” Lexie says. “I was so glad I did because three of our four smoke detectors weren’t functioning.”

Lexie is one of several homeowners across the nation who have benefited from the American Red Cross’ Home Fire Safety Campaign. Through the campaign, Red Cross volunteers are sent door-to-door in their local community to ensure that people are prepared in case disaster strikes. Every day, seven people die from a home fire, and the Red Cross aims to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries in the US by 25 percent by 2020.

Not only do volunteers install fire alarms and check batteries, the Home Fire Safety Campaign is an educational experience. Fire safety information is provided, such as how to create an evacuation plan, often with the help of local firefighters.

This was Lexie’s first experience with the American Red Cross, and it left a lasting impression.

“I was so delighted that it was a service that the Red Cross was providing,” she says. ”People going door to door and offering something that could be lifesaving doesn’t happen every day.”

The volunteers replaced three fire alarms for free, leaving behind information pamphlets about the new alarms that come equipped with a lifetime battery. She says that they often checked the batteries on the fire alarms, but didn’t know they weren’t functioning. Lexie didn’t realize that fire alarms needed to be replaced every five years and the family has been living in their home for eight years.

“Our own home wasn’t as safe as it could be,” she says. “I feel very relieved. It was huge help that we really, really appreciated.”

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Stories from the Field

greghinojosa During the course of our work, we come across many stories about our volunteers and the people we serve that illustrate the American Red Cross’s important role in our local communities. Here is one Montana story we’d like to share with you.

Bringing a Service Member Home

Bozeman, MT— National Guard Specialist Greg Hinojosa had always looked up to his grandfather, Alton Windsor. When Greg was a kid, Windsor taught him “all the cool things” like hunting and fishing. He inspired Greg to make something of himself.

Windsor lived life on his own terms, becoming a scientist, earning a teaching degree, building his own cabin off the grid and becoming one of Montana’s first smokejumpers. A Korean War veteran, he was awarded a silver star for saving the lives of several platoon members while severely injured himself. Windsor was a hard act to follow.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do something with my life that he’d be proud of,” says Greg, who is pursuing a business degree at MSU. “I joined the National Guard to carry the torch that my granddad passed down to me.”

When Windsor died in July 2014, Greg was in the Idaho desert, training with his Scout Platoon. He was devastated. Greg learned that the Red Cross would fly him back to Montana to attend the funeral. “It was important to me to be with my family and to honor my granddad’s passing,” Greg explains.

Greg remembers getting on the plane and being met with applause from the passengers and crew. “I felt they were clapping for my granddad,” he says. “It was a moving moment.”    

Greg is grateful for the Red Cross for helping him at a difficult time. “This is one of many services that the Red Cross provides to active service members. I am very thankful for that support.”  

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