Advancing the Art of Collaboration
Advancing the Art of Collaboration
This series, produced in partnership with BBB's, calls on the social sector to embody a new and pioneering collaborative spirit based in trust so that it can reach broader audiences, share the risk involved in experimentation, and accomplish more than any single organization could do alone.

In the United States, continuous and pervasive home fires remain a common cause of death and injury. The installation of just one working smoke alarm in a household can reduce risk by 50 percent, but equipping the millions of households currently without alarms presents a massive challenge.

As a national, grassroots organization focused on lifesaving services, the Red Cross was well positioned to lead on this issue and, in October 2014, it created the American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign. The campaign has since installed 840,000 smoke alarms and designed evacuation plans in nearly 350,000 homes across more than 10,000 US communities, saving more than 235 lives to date.

We couldn’t have achieved this level of progress alone. Collaboration with more than 4,200 social service organizations, businesses, local governments, civic groups, fire departments, and faith-based groups—who have provided volunteers, materials, media promotion, and/or financial resources—has been the key to our success so far and will be critical to our future efforts.

To reach our goal of reducing death and injury from home fires by 25 percent by 2020—which means installing 2.5 million alarms in 1 million homes—we face the ongoing challenge of sustaining the broad participation of partners over time. Because households with low-income individuals, children under 5, adults over 65, and individuals with disabilities or other access or functional needs are most at risk for home fire fatalities or injuries, one of the questions we encountered early on was how to consistently enlist organizations working with these specific groups. We also needed to solicit wide community participation in cities and towns across the United States, and wanted to seed a larger movement to sustain awareness and action that could further drive down death and injuries.

Structure and adaptability

The Home Fire Campaign uses a collaborative model through coalition building. Red Cross chapters across the United States are building relationships and connections, and working with partners to:

  1. Identify which neighborhoods are most at risk, and then target campaign activities. For example, the American Red Cross of Iowa has set up a unique partnership with the Greater Des Moines’s Habitat for Humanity’s Rock the Block program. During a typical three-day Rock the Block event, approximately 150 Habitat volunteers come out and work on a low-income neighborhood where major rehabilitation and new construction are already underway or planned for the near future. As part of this effort, volunteers now install smoke alarms for families enrolled in the program.
  2. Recruit volunteers to canvass neighborhoods and form home-visit teams. For example, the Home Fire Campaign was the focus of Smith’s Food and Drug’s company-wide volunteer service day. On July 16, 2015, the Red Cross coordinated across seven states and 42 counties, mobilizing 1,380 Smith’s employees from 138 stores to help neighbors in need.
  3. Support the campaign through financial and material resources, such as food and tools. In Virginia, for example, Jenkins Restoration started out providing tools for local Home Fire campaign events, and then started providing water and food to volunteers. After participating in more than 25 events, Jenkins employees now also serve as installers, educators, and data recorders. Jenkins has also provided volunteers fluent in Spanish who offer important translation assistance. 
  4. Jointly execute in-home visit events, which leverage thousands of volunteers. For example, Almost Family, Inc.—a provider of home health care services in 26 US states—has collaborated on a pilot project with the Red Cross Kentucky Region, in which employees integrate Home Fire Campaign fire safety education and smoke alarm needs assessments into all home visits. The Red Cross Kentucky Region then examines the data Almost Family collects, and makes follow-up appointments to install alarms where needed.
  5. Evaluate activities to improve events over time. The Red Cross structures Home Fire Campaign opportunities for consistency and ease of execution. The campaign provides local chapters tools—including guidance on planning and participating in campaign activities, YouTube promotional and training videos, financial support packages, management and planning resources, and aggregated data analysis—to share with organizations so that they can best match their interests and capabilities.

Although these campaign activities are structured, they are also adaptable enough to meet the unique needs of individual partners and the communities they serve. Our partnership with Almost Family is an example of how we have worked with partners to create a hybrid model. 

Another important aspect of successful engagement is keeping the barrier to entry for participation low. We can train people on canvassing or home visits in as little as 15 minutes. The campaign’s activities are also time-limited and produce immediate results. A person can participate in one eight-hour shift and install up to 20 to 25 alarms as part of a team.

We also have a model that empowers a group to engage in the campaign independently, forming and managing their own home visit teams, or carrying out the education and installations as part of their regular services. The Red Cross provides the alarms and education materials, as well as support for training and choosing locations, as needed. This approach has the added benefit of bringing neighborhoods closer together. An example of this type of collaboration is our partnership with South Carolina’s Office of the State Fire Marshal and the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association to engage fire departments throughout the state. The fire departments form their own home-visit teams and provide installations on an ongoing basis. In less than two years, these efforts have helped protect more than 30,000 residents of South Carolina from home fires by installing more than 40,000 smoke alarms and teaching families about home fire safety.

Going forward

A major challenge to reaching at-risk households is that organizations serving these communities already operate on a thin margin and have little room to expand the scope of their primary missions, even for a good cause. The Red Cross finds common ground, and aims to remain nimble enough to create joint ventures that adhere to the program standards and prepare households, while not placing an unsustainable work burden on its partners. Ultimately, this campaign is an extension of our mission to prevent and alleviate suffering in the face of disaster and emergency, and the more efficiently a coalition or partnership can execute its goal, the more lives we will save.