October 3, 2013

A Word with the Boss: Maine Red Cross chief discusses what fears keep her awake

Pat Murtagh, an EMT trained in wilderness rescue, oversees 650 volunteers who help people in their worst moments.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Red Cross regional Chief Executive Officer Pat Murtagh oversees 17 paid employees and 650 volunteers in Maine. The organization is funded by donors, United Way, corporate partnerships and foundations.

John Ewing/staff photographer...

Q: What does your job entail? 

A: A lot of our work is response to local disasters, like house fires, or it could be a flood or winter storm. We respond to almost a fire a night, close to 350 fires a year, so a big part of what I do is make sure we have the people and the resources to provide the relief. There are also services to the armed forces, and we provide international services, like when we help locate people in refugee camps or locate people here with messages from refugees from around the world. 

Q: How reliant is the Red Cross on volunteers versus paid staffers?

A: We are a predominantly volunteer-driven organization, and that’s an incredible statement when you consider that more than 90 percent of our responders are volunteers. When people are going to Oklahoma or getting up in the middle of the night to respond to a fire, those are volunteers. When there’s a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, lots of people want to help and we can organize that. People need to go through quite a bit of training to be in a volunteer leadership role and we have quite a few volunteer leaders, so we rely very heavily on skilled and dedicated volunteers. We have people who give 40 or 50 hour weeks as volunteers. We have people who have helped design and implement our new volunteer computer systems. So part of what I do on a daily basis is understand where we are with the volunteers we have and work to create a culture in the organization to attract and keep our volunteers. And we also raise money for the organization, because this organization provides (financial) help directly to clients. We help find housing, replace medications, replace house keys and things like that.

Beyond that, we’re seeing more mass casualty events, and surprisingly enough, we have a great deal of mental health volunteers in Maine who are requested to go to those events, like doctors who were requested to go to (Newtown) Connecticut or the Boston bombings. Our staff is not only amazing to begin with, but well-respected around the country.

Q: How has leading the Red Cross changed you?

A: Living in Maine, I always check the temperature in the morning, which I think people in New York find very funny. Now I watch the weather all over the world, from tropical storms to fires in California and Colorado, because we know at some point, if it’s a big enough event, we’re going to send someone. We work closely with partners like EMS (teams) and the Salvation Army and various United Way groups that are ready to respond. 

Q: What keeps you awake at night?

A: A lot of this is community preparedness, and I look at what happened with Hurricane Sandy. If that hurricane had just tilted 14 degrees, it would have hit Maine, so I think about the vulnerabilities of our coastal communities. I think a lot of about preparedness, and unless something has happened in a community, the tendency is to not think about it, so that’s what keeps me up at night. 

Q: How has the Red Cross responded to that aspect of helping people get ready for an emergency?

A: The Red Cross has taken to mobile technology very quickly and we’ve developed a series of mobile applications. We have a hurricane app, a tornado app, a first aid app. They’re very content-rich on how to get prepared, what to do during an event and after an event. These things really make a difference, and we need to get these out in people’s hands.

I was driving from Bangor to Brunswick recently during some severe thunderstorms. I have two cell phones in my car, and with both of them, the alarm started going off. It was funny but reassuring to hear my iPad going off on the back seat and my phones going off at the same time. 

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:


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