‘People will get it done’: Q&A with Dave Nelson, government operations volunteer working on Coronavirus response

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

With any large-scale disaster, there is a significant amount of work behind the scenes to set up food, shelter, assistance and more on the ground. Rarely has that “behind-the-scenes” effort been more vital than during the present COVID-19 pandemic. By its nature, this health emergency has resulted in isolation, social distancing and other remote efforts. This is where the strategy, networking and smarts of American Red Cross volunteers like Dave Nelson make a huge impact. From a post at the State Emergency Operations Center in Madison, as well as virtually, Nelson has led the Red Cross response to the Coronavirus emergency.

Nelson started at the Red Cross about eight years ago, including stints as a disaster action team volunteer and board president with the Northwest Wisconsin Chapter. Nelson, a retired finance officer for hospital systems who lives in Eau Claire with his wife, shares details on this unique Red Cross volunteer role – and one-of-a-kind disaster response.

Dave Nelson headshot

Dave Nelson

For starters, how do you kind of describe your volunteer role to friends or people on the street?

“I say that, ‘If we do our job here [in the Emergency Operations Center], that’s how we coordinate where to set up shelters, where our partners could use our assistance, and where people are most in need.”

What are some of the duties as a Government Operations volunteer?

“Where we usually work is in the E.O.C. [Emergency Operations Center]. That could be with the state, county or municipality. We coordinate the emergency response with all of the local authorities, including, like here with the state Department of Health Services, the National Guard, FEMA … all those types of agencies so there is a coordinated effort by all entities to provide the response needs in the places that it is most needed. … For Red Crossers, this role used to be called ‘Government Liaison.’”


Volunteers make the mission of the American Red Cross come to life. Find volunteer opportunities that fit your interests at redcross.org/volunteer.


Had you done this role before the Coronavirus response?

“First time I did this was during the Bad River Floods in 2016. For Hurricane Florence, I was the government operations [lead] in South Carolina for 15 counties in that response. I was at the Camp Fire in Paradise, California and last summer I was with the state of Oklahoma for flooding.”

Compare and contrast for us, the differences and similarities with a natural disaster like a hurricane in your role, and what’s happening with your role during this COVID-19 response.

Vol Dave Nelson at State EOC 3-16-20

Dave Nelson, at right in hat, on the first day at the State Emergency Operations Center in Madison.

“What is similar: I’m working with the federal, state and local authorities in the E.O.C. We also coordinate a lot with V.O.A.D. [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters] groups, too, to help find other resources where we all have a gap to fill. The players from the agency standpoint are pretty much the same. In hurricanes, for instance, the majority of our work is … supplies, feeding and sheltering of people. What makes this one very different is that we’re not doing any sheltering. We have special rules because we’re dealing with a pandemic, which is something not many of us have worked with before. The coordination becomes different. The state and counties are working on isolation shelters, more of a medical shelter and different from congregate shelters … Using Red Cross and FEMA resources, we helped put together a shelter operating manual with DHS so that they can operate and better understand the processes involved in operating shelters. DHS is taking the lead and we’re assisting, providing guidance, supplies and resources. They’re the health experts. It may seem small to anyone outside but it’s really under a whole different set of rules to ensure infection does not spread and medical needs are met.”

I’ve been at E.O.C.s in the past in Madison and this one was definitely different from day one. Can you share the differences from the perspective of where and how you’re working?

“We walk through medical screenings before we can even get into the [E.O.C.] building. We’ve been working, spaced apart somewhat … and we are now dispersing into what we call ‘Virtual E.O.C.’, using web access, phones, email. That is important [based on gathering guidelines], but we’ll be doing a lot more calling, relying on technology much more. People will get it done. These people in the E.O.C., they work hard and they take tasks seriously. Whatever needs to get done, gets done. And that’s the fun part, really, solving problems and executing the plan.”

A couple of weeks into this pandemic, what have been some of the early successes?

“Some of the blood drive need and safety information, getting that language passed along to help the state and governor’s office to support the need for blood drives and collection. The other big one for me was, on day two, getting involved with the isolation sheltering task force. I was able to find policy and standards manuals and intake forms as a start, based on Red Cross, FEMA things I know about sheltering, and contacts I had from other states already going these response issues in heavily impacted areas in California, where they’re a little ahead of Wisconsin in dealing with the COVID-19 response. Our team was able to then bring in a shelter expert, Barbara Gugel, to work full-time with the Isolation Task Force to develop and put that isolation sheltering process into place. It’s where your networking and working well with new people, treating each other well, really comes into play.”

This is a pretty unique role with the Red Cross. What qualities would you say help to have for someone who may want to get involved like you in government operations?

“You have to be even tempered. Don’t take anything personally, there is so much going on and people can get stressed, people are tired. If you can handle the pressure of working 12-to-15 hours a day and coordinate with numerous types of people, [those are] the skills you really need. Even if it’s a role that comes up once or twice a year, don’t get frustrated with that. At the end of the day, we’re here to help people the best we can. We play a very important role, and our government partners, our nonprofit partners, they all know that.”

You can make an impact in your community as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Find volunteer opportunities that fit your passion at redcross.org/volunteer

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