Shaler warming center offers 'peace of mind'

| Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 9:03 p.m.

A special team created in Shaler Township provides a quick response in emergency situations such as the sub-zero temperatures seen earlier this month.

The American Red Cross Community Shelter Team in Shaler Township, established in 2009, is a local volunteer group that organizes and staffs emergency shelters during community disasters and mobilized Jan. 6 through 8 to provide a warming center in Shaler Area Middle School.

“We didn't have any takers … (but) the warming center is just somewhere for people to come,” said Shaler police Sgt. Sean Frank, emergency-management coordinator.

The warming center was set up and staffed by volunteers on the shelter team when temperatures plunged below 0 degrees with wind chills making the temperature feel as low as minus 40 degrees.

During the daytime hours, the warming center moved from the middle school to the Shaler North Hills Library, which is next door.

Sharon McRae, library director and a shelter-team member, said the decision to have the warming center in the library during the day was a new arrangement but one that made sense.

“Anything that we can do to help,” McRae said. “It's a township facility, and we're open any way. We're happy to do what we can.”

The library staff kept hot chocolate, coffee and tea available for patrons on the first floor during operating hours when the building doubled as a warming center.

“I think it's a tribute to a community that steps up,” McRae said. “You don't know what is going to happen if your furnace goes and you can't get a hold of a neighbor or relative. It's a peace of mind, too, that (you) do have a place to go.”

The shelter team was called to action for the first time in February 2010, when back-to-back snowstorms dumped close to 2 feet of snow on the Pittsburgh area and knocked out power in parts of the region.

Similarly, earlier this month, power outages shut down home furnaces, and water-pipe breaks or frozen pipes left residents without water. When the shelter team decided to open its warming center, it was supported by the American Red Cross.

The Shaler team has access to an American Red Cross disaster-services supply trailer, which is housed in Shaler and equipped with 100 cots and personal-care kits. The Red Cross purchased the trailer and supplies through an $80,000 grant U.S. Steel provided in 2009 to help fund the shelter equipment and shelter-team program.

“The shelter teams, they are in the right location to support their community quickly,” said Lauren Ashley, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, about the importance of the teams.

“If we were to mobilize volunteers from our office (in Downtown Pittsburgh), it would take longer to get volunteers and supplies organized. The supplies are already in place and positioned, and a shelter can be opened directly by community members quickly.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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