Annual Disaster Academy Goes Virtual Due to COVID-19

Story by Hannah C. Wood / Red Cross Cascades

The Cascades Region Disaster Academy takes place every May and typically, the academy would be an in-person event at Willamette University and is an interactive experience for all involved.

Disaster Academy 2019 group photo from June 2, 2019 in front of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, OR. Photo by Curtis Peetz/American Red Cross

However, the 2020 event looks dramatically different to disaster academies of the past. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Disaster Academy had to be adapted to be a completely virtual event.

Moving the Disaster Academy online – with such a rapid turnaround – was a massive effort. 

To give you an idea of the scope of the 2020 event, here are a few fast facts:

  • More than 80 different sessions are offered for volunteers and staff
  • Over 350 people have participated so far
  • This is the Cascades Region’s 8th year holding the Disaster Academy
  • All classes conducted via video conference using Microsoft Teams

Yet, while community events around the region were being canceled left and right, the coordinators of the Disaster Academy, whom are volunteers, Kirsten Barnes and Dianne Mekkers, knew it was important for the Academy to still happen.

“Disasters and Red Cross responses continue despite the coronavirus. It is critically important than we have trained, confident workers who can serve people who have been displaced or have unmet needs that the Red Cross can fulfill,” Mekkers said.

“In order to achieve the training and confidence goals of the Academy yet protect our workers and comply with the Stay-at-Home orders, it seemed very appropriate to go virtual,” Mekkers continued.

However, taking what is traditionally an in-person event spanning over several days and across different facilities, is no easy feat!

As one can imagine, there were a few challenges during this transition according to Mekkers, “Some of the more significant challenges have been doing the initial training of all the participants to use the virtual platforms on their own devices at home, training instructors to use the virtual methods, and the unfamiliar ground of getting everyone on board with the process for connecting to the courses”.

That being said, the Disaster Academy’s instructors quickly acclimated – they took training themselves to leverage the technologies available and meet their students’ learning needs.

Though we’re only three weeks into the 2020 Disaster Academy, it is clear that the event is a success.

“There has been an overwhelmingly positive response so far, despite the few glitches that have occurred. People have been patient and flexible – the hallmarks of a Red Cross Volunteer,” said Mekkers.

She went on to say, “It’s been a steep learning curve for almost everyone with respect to the use of technology, but this will serve us well in the future.”

This success must be credited to the tremendous efforts of the entire Disaster Cycle Services team, instructors, volunteers, and participants. Thank you all for continuing to support the mission of the Red Cross, even in such unique circumstances.

If you’re interested in volunteering with the Red Cross Cascades Region please visit