Pat Murtagh has worked for a television station, L.L. Bean and is now regional chief executive officer for the Red Cross. She’s also been a trained critical-care emergency medical technician and worked on wilderness rescue missions. The Red Cross in Maine has 17 paid employees and 650 volunteers. The organization’s annual operating budget is $1.5 million, funded by individual donors, United Way, corporate partnerships and foundations. 

Q: After a career largely spent with for-profit businesses, are you surprised to be leading a nonprofit, largely volunteer organization?

A: I’ve always volunteered; I started when I was 14 years old and a volunteer at a summer camp for children with disabilities. But it really started back in San Francisco, when I was at the Chronicle Broadcasting Co. and one of our engineers was electrocuted on a television tower. And the crew came back and they were talking about it and said he probably could have survived with CPR. And I said, “What’s CPR?”

So they told me, and I went to the Red Cross and learned it and went back to the station and taught it there. When I moved to New York, I got more involved in providing medical care and got training as an EMT and then became a critical-care EMT. I loved being able to go out on an emergency and being able to work with people who were obviously in a critical situation.

I always thought others were better at the medical part, but what I really loved was being able to sit with them in the back of the ambulance and letting them know that they weren’t alone and they were going through something that we could help with. That’s what led me back to the Red Cross eventually. We stand with people at a moment in their lives when they realize they’ve lost everything, and being able to stand with them then is really important. It’s critical that someone in the community stands there with people at a time like that.

Q: How did you get involved with wilderness rescues?

A: I did a fair amount of mountaineering and climbing, and having that medical background was helpful in remote places. I still had a career in business, and when I came to Maine I recertified as an EMT and worked with Freeport Rescue. Working at L.L. Bean, I was in the outdoors a fair amount and doing quite a bit of climbing. I decided I wanted to do something different and learn how to work in the wilderness, and worked for a short stint with wilderness rescue and learning how to apply basic medical skills. 

Q: Why did you shift from L.L. Bean to the Red Cross?

A: After 9/11 hit, I really stopped to think about what I wanted to be doing and how I could do more. I was working for one of the best companies in the world, so I couldn’t imagine going to a for-profit company better than that. So I started looking in the nonprofit world and went to work for Volunteers of America in Maine as their chief operating officer. It was a great time to look at how to transfer my business skills into a nonprofit, because a lot of nonprofits at the time were looking at how to better manage their businesses. I oversaw operations in non-clinical programming, and the organization wanted to understand how better to fund these activities. I did that for about five years and loved the work, but when I saw the opening at the Red Cross, I felt like that would bring together all the pieces of my career. 

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:

[email protected]

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