Each year, ARC responds to more than 70,000 disasters, including house or apartment fires (making up the majority), hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hazardous materials spills, transportation accidents, explosions and other natural and man-made disasters.
Although ARC is not a government agency, its authority to provide disaster relief was formalized when, in 1905, it was granted a congressional charter to "carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace and apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other great national calamities, and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same." The charter is not only a grant of power but also an imposition of duties and obligations to the nation, to disaster victims and to the people who support its work with their donations.
Disaster relief focuses on emergency disaster-caused needs. When a disaster threatens or strikes, ARC provides shelter, food and health and mental health services (Psychological First Aid) to address basic human needs. The core of Red Cross disaster relief is assistance to individuals and families to enable them to resume their normal daily activities. The organization provides translation and interpretation when necessary, and maintains a database of multilingual volunteers.
At the local level, ARC chapters operate volunteer-staffed Disaster Action Teams.
ARC feeds emergency workers of other agencies, handles inquiries from concerned family members outside the disaster area, provides blood and blood products to disaster victims and helps those affected by a disaster to access other resources. It is a member of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and works closely with other agencies such as Salvation Army and Amateur Radio Emergency Service with whom it has memorandums of understanding.
ARC works to encourage preparedness by providing important literature on readiness. Many chapters also offer free classes to the general public.
A major misconception among the general public is that ARC provides medical facilities, engages in search and rescue operations or deploys ambulances. Instead, first responder roles are left to government agencies as dictated by the National Response Framework. Red Cross societies outside the U.S. may provide such functions; for example, the Cruz Roja Mexicana (Mexican Red Cross) runs a national ambulance service. Furthermore, American Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) look similar to ambulances. These ERVs instead are designed for bulk distribution of relief supplies, such as meals, drinks and other relief supplies. Although ARC shelters usually assign a nurse to the facility, they are not equipped to provide medical care beyond first aid.