AT 2 o'clock on Sunday, Oct. 20, Larry Kamer, partner in a San Francisco public relations firm, received a phone call at home. Fire was consuming several neighborhoods nearby and a crush of media personnel was descending on local shelter officials who were too busy setting up cots and food lines to deal with them. Could he help?"When I got there, it was a tornado of activity," says Mr. Kamer. "The shelter manager thanked me for existing, briefed me, and sent me out to deal with a gaggle of reporters." As the American Red Cross has learned through two community-wide disasters here in two years, the most important commodity during a major crisis is information. Having very publicly stumbled over its own inadequacies during the 1989 earthquake - when thousands of journalists descended like locusts to the scene - the world's premier disaster-relief agency has designed a first-of-its-kind volunteer task force to meet both local and worldwide media needs. "As the world learned during the Gulf war, decision makers and citizens alike are responding blow by blow to what they see on TV," says Linda Sharp, co-chair of the American Red Cross Communication Task Force. "If the not-for-profit world doesn't gear up for the new era, it will simply fail in its mandate." The task-force idea took seed after the Loma Prieta earthquake, and blossomed during Gulf-war concerns that local refineries and defense installations might be targets for terrorism. Short of staff when the war was imminent, Red Cross officials called Ms. Sharp, president of a local business-to-business marketing firm for reinforcement. "When I thought of the horrendous responsibility, I started calling friends in high places for backup," says Sharp. Before long, formal plans for a network of media-savvy professionals had developed to stand ready to assist in disasters of any magnitude. "The Red Cross has people who are trained to erect shelters, assess damage, distribute food," says Beverly Butler, director of public affairs for the San Francisco Bay area Red Cross. Such people are flown in from distant cities such as Boston and St. Louis within hours of developments, she says. "But they are not available in the crucial first hours, and they don't know the local media, politics, or geography." After the 1989 earthquake, Red Cross officials were criticized for insensitivity to the large homeless population, Spanish- and Asian-speaking communities, and local government hierarchy. The organization was also in need of image-management in a controversy over donations. "There also was some more progressive thinking in [Red Cross] management that began to realize the press is part of the solution," says Kamer. After nearly a year of recruitment and planning, the new group boasts 60 of the Bay area's top professionals from firms such as Chevron, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the Bank of California. Members include public relations agency heads, trade association directors, and freelancers. "These are not trainees or low-level personnel," says Ms. Butler. "They are the highest caliber people in the communications business." Due for a formal kickoff party the day of the Oakland fire, the group kicked into action instead. A months-in-the-making flow chart divided 30 ready volunteers both geographically and by expertise, including media and government relations, logistics (coordinating transportation, communication equipment), materials coordination (photo- graphy, graphics, research), and community relations (with churches, relatives of victims, and health organizations). Kamer called on his experience as a local government analyst - speaking with the mayor of Berkeley, local assemblymen, the city council, and insurance officials. He typed up press releases for faxing to local newspapers. He appeared on a syndicated ABC morning talk show and arranged national "press hits pairing TV crews from CNN, ABC, and others with local citizens willing to tell their stories. "We had the luxury of really know-ledgeable, trained media people staying ahead of the news organizations," says Butler. "And that left the regular staff free to deal with victims, evacuees, and food distribution." "Task force members already have relationships with all of the people in government and media who need to be contacted," says Larry Shushan, director of public information for Chevron Corp. "Everyone who needs information in a hurry can keep on top of the disaster as it unfolds."