this will only make sense to AIIMS-trained people – part 4

Dedicated to Julie Groome and all those who work with spontaneous volunteers…

It hurts when there’s nothing but a slow growing queue
And your fear seems to say you won’t get them all trained
All alone I have cried; “Get HR on our side!”
We need more volunteers for the field…..

Well I run the training, run the police checks, see them learning
Run around, sign them up for the cause….

VOLUNTEERING, bein’s believin’
You can have it all, volunteering all your life
Take your passion and make it happen
Dreams can come alive, volunteering at Red Cross!

gong hei fat choi

We should have known it was going to be a difficult day. We stood in the early morning heat at the hotel before seven, while taxis came and went. None of them were ours. We had to re-book several times before somebody would take us.

A second day of computer problems plagued us all day, making the simplest of operational processes a huge ordeal. The clever idea of the Queensland state government to centrally coordinate all emergency response travel to the cyclone-affected areas was a good one, but it meant we were one step further away from controlling the travel of our own people. Things moved so fast – and then so slowly – many people’s heads were spinning before noon.

We continued to struggle to keep our head in the various games we were presented with. Queensland is hurting from wave after wave (pardon the pun) of flooding and cyclone activity. Despite the urgency of response required along the Far North Queensland coast, we could not forget the previous weeks of activity and the recovery process people are struggling through in Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Rockhampton, Emerald and so many other places. As well the ongoing threat to inland towns by the ex-cyclone as it winds down in intensity. Not to mention the Red Crossers in Victoria and other states staffing the National Inquiry Centre, answering calls from people registering as flood or cyclone affected, or taking calls from others seeking their loved ones.

What else could possibly happen?

By mid-afternoon more news started to reach us of wild weather in Victoria. The scenic town of Hall’s Gap in the Grampians has been evacuated this evening due to an imminent major landslide (rain-related, of course). As I write, Red Cross people are working in a relief centre now open in nearby Stawell. Local emergency services have already pre-positioned search-and-rescue teams, which is never an encouraging sign.

People in Mildura, in the far north-west of Victoria, have found themselves suddenly congregating in the high street, waist-deep in water from rain that fell over no more than an hour. Two relief centres have just been set up, with Red Cross in attendance.
A lot of western Victoria and central Melbourne is seriously flooding. They are predicting around 200mm of rain this evening across western and central Victoria, and Melbourne itself, but anything more than 100mm will bring most river systems back up to major flood level. The water is less than three houses away from some colleagues who live by the bay very close to central Melbourne. Motorists on the St. Kilda Road were over their wheel arches in floodwaters this evening.
Meanwhile in Queensland, not forty-eight hours after the height of Cyclone Yasi, the Red Cross deployments continued along the coast today. We are also watching Alice Springs in NT very closely: it is under a severe weather warning as ex-cyclone Yasi continues inland.

Oh, yes, and Adelaide Red Cross were only stood down from a heatwave response on Monday, and WA are still working on long-term recovery outreach operations following the floods in Carnarvon in December.

So a few colleagues and I went out for a quick bite to eat on the way home. We ended up in a Chinese place across the road from the Red Cross offices. Halfway through our meal, the noise began. What else could possibly go wrong tonight? Suddenly, the crashing and banging made sense, as two huge Chinese dragons entered the restaurant. Gong Hei Fat Choi, everybody! It’s Chinese New Year! We just hadn’t realised. The packed restaurant clapped and cheered as the dragons came in and terrorised us, dancing and prancing and chasing little children (much to their delight) and gobbling up red-and-gold envelopes with coins in, in payment for prosperity for the year to come.

The Red Crossers at my table took photos, clapped and cheered, and for about five minutes forgot the litany of emergencies and situations swimming around our heads. As the red dragon approached our table, we snapped away on iPhones and cameras, laughed out loud and waved madly (alright, that last one was just me). The banging and crashing of cymbals and drums reached a crescendo as the dragons produced a Chinese sign which (presumably) said they had been bribed enough, and would leave us alone for another year of prosperity.

As we paid our bill and slipped away into the night, those few minutes of light and sound and levity stayed with us. It was a tough day, with more curve balls thrown at us than we cared to count. By bedtime the Red Cross emergency response across the country was even bigger than before, but we will handle it. It’s what we do.

disasters in the future tense

I am an Australian. Naturalised, naturally. Born in Ireland, and having spent over twenty of my adult years in England, I am a child of a cool temperate maritime climate, a post-war Britain, a post-Independence Republic of Ireland.

Nowhere in my personal or national psyche has prepared me for the enormity of experiencing a disaster in the future tense.

What were the biggest national events in Ireland in my formative years? The daily onslaught of the IRA, the INLA, the UVF, the UDA on the national news, reporting day after day of terrorist activity, often no more than a hundred kilometres from my home. These news reports were always in the past tense, often only reported many hours after happening.

One year, 1982, we had “the big snow” in Ireland, with record snowfall over January and February, which reduced Dublin and much of Ireland to Alpine conditions for almost two months – a little like the events of this past northern-hemisphere winter. My father never acknowledged “the big snow”. He was in hospital recovering from a heart bypass, and didn’t see many snowdrifts from his city centre hospital bed. Ergo, it didn’t really happen.

As an adult living in the UK, my life was peppered with tragedies happening all around me. The Kegworth air disaster happened about eight weeks after I moved to England. I was living less than thirty kilometres away at the time. I drove past the scorch marks on the side of the motorway for months after: the visible evidence of a mangled aircraft and almost fifty deaths.

Those days, with my accent, I was seen as a potential terrorist myself. My landlady in Leicester warned my neighbours about me. Travelling weekly to Northern Ireland, the UK’s Prevention of Terrorism Act made air travel deeply inconvenient even then. I was bombarded with paperwork, patted down by a female PC and asked to operate scientific calculators and pagers every time I tried to board a plane. I travelled so much even then, I knew some of the airport police by first name.

Then, through the eighties and nineties: the Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton, an attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher. The Harrods bomb. The Lockerbie disaster. Manchester. Warrington. The Baltic Exchange, then Bishopsgate, both in London.

Years later, I lived and worked through the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings in London. Over fifteen minutes one Thursday morning, our lives were changed forever. We were not afraid. The Londoners’ Blitz mentality kicked in, and defiance was the natural response.

But living in Australia is different. Here, as we were told before we moved here, everything is trying to kill you. Sun, sea, sharks, jellyfish, spiders, snakes, you name it. We were not long here when Cyclone Larry hit, but I was not working in emergency management then. All I remember was that bananas went up to more than $30 a kilo for a year. Fires in Victoria also loomed large in our early years, culminating in the dreadful events of February 2009. Like others, I was personally involved in the emergency response and recovery phases of this natural disaster, but even then those events unfolded so quickly, we just reacted as the situation emerged.

Now, I sit in a hotel room in Brisbane, aware that right now the far north of Queensland is being hit by the beginnings of the worst cyclone to hit Australia in over a century: Cyclone Yasi, twice as big as Hurricane Katrina and happening right now. Almost exactly 1,000 miles north of here, 60,000 homes are without power and more than 10,000 people are already sheltering in evacuation centres. Down here in Brisbane, in the Red Cross National Coordination Centre and Queensland Emergency Operations Centre, all day we have been watching the TV footage and doing what we can to assist or prepare to assist.

For me, this unfolding of a guaranteed catastrophic event in the very near future is unnatural. I have reacted to quite a few serious emergencies after the fact, but I cannot remember a time when I sat at my desk and watched such a severe event about to happen. Looking at a disaster in the future tense, I am fortunate in that I don’t feel powerless to act, but I do feel powerless to stop what is happening.

Tomorrow morning I will wake up and check the cable TV stations. I will have a quick breakfast briefing with colleagues, and we will hit the office before 7.30am and keep going with the emergency response work of Red Cross. There are things I know I can contribute to this, but only tomorrow.

Tonight, I sit alone in my hotel room. The weather outside is ominously quiet. I will resist the temptation to switch on the TV and watch the storm of the century unfold. It is time to sleep.

this will only make sense to AIIMS-trained people… part 3

The Operations Theme Tune

to the tune of “Revolution” by the Beatles

You say you want to work in operations
Well, you know
We’d all love to change the world
You set off on your Red Cross mission
Well, you know
Humanity can change the world
But when you talk about field communications
Don’t you know that we have to make it work
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
all right, all right

You say you can make quick decisions
Well, you know
Let’s see what your sitrep shows
You ask me what’s your limitation
Well, you know
let your operation grow!
But when you want coping booklets or a bigger team
You’ll have to rely on logs and planning – they’re so keen
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
all right, all right

Alternative lyrics from Lauren:

You say your role is Operatiooonns, weelll you know
You’ve got people on the ground
You will be given lots of informatiooon, welll you know
You gotta paaass it arroouuund
And it it’s time to give instructions
That’s what the briefings are all about!

You have to make a contributioooon, wellll you know
That’s important for the plan
Shoo be doo up, oh shoo be do up
Manage the communicatiiioooon, welll you know
You gotta do what you cannnn
Remember SMEACS FORMS and your tabard – red
Sit Reps handed in on time or you’ll be DEAD

I’m in the EOC! Alright!

this will only make sense to AIIMS-trained people… part 2

And now….

The Planning Officer Theme Tune

Sung to the tune of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles

(this one is a joint Lauren – Mairead effort)

yeah I tell you something
I think you’ll understand
when i say that right now
I wanna make a PLAAAAN

I wanna make a PLAN, I wanna make a PLAN

oh please say to me
you’ll tell me all you know
and please watch with me
as our situational awarenesss GROWS

now let me make that PLAAAAN
I wanna make a plan

and when I wear a yellow tabard, it’s fine
it’s a great feeling when the IAP

is defined

is defined

is defined

yeah you
got that something
I think you’ll understand
when I say that right now
I wanna make a PLAAAAN

now let me make that PLAAAAN
I wanna make a plan

this will only make sense to AIIMS-trained people… part 1

Logistics Officer Theme Tune

Sing to the tune of “I Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode.

All rights reserved by Lauren McDonnell of the WA team!

I am a Logistics Officer

I’ll get you all your stuff, and I can get enough

I will roster volunteers and even order lunch

I’ll write it on a form, in fire, flood or storm

You can find me in the EOC

I can help you, and I will be wearing BLUE


Queensland floods – day 22

Victoria has now been hit. ‎43 Victorian towns have now been flooded, affecting more than 1400 properties. These are the biggest floods in decades and in some areas are the largest ever recorded. My Victorian colleagues scramble to respond. Luckily their State EOC was already up and running, assisting with the Queensland floods by running the National Inquiry Centre, a call-centre for people trying to find their loved ones. It’s still hard to hit the ground running in the middle of the night.

First task in the morning is a pharmacy run. Half of us realise this morning that we are a bit dehydrated, so I stock up on Hydralyte and other girlie items for the rest of the ladies. I stand over a few of them to make sure they drink their electrolytes, and drink four glasses myself before noon.

The rest of Park Road is alive at last, and people cheer as they realise that “real” coffee is available for the first time in a week. Sally runs over to Mary Ryan’s bookshop all excited, only to find out they have nothing but soy milk for now. Undeterred, she runs back across the road to the Red Cross fridge and liberates a couple of litres of fresh milk. Last I see her, she is striding purposefully back to the shop, clutching her carton. Wonder what they charge when it’s BYO milk?

Monday morning in the office sees the full National Emergency Services gang back together for the first time in three weeks. Between holidays and illness, we’ve been down two people since Christmas. It’s a relief to feel back to full strength, and our first teleconference is full of ideas and strategies.

I slip into handover mode. Kirstie is running the National Coordination Centre like a dream, with Shin Yee making her National Logistics Officer role look easy, and Bev’s calmness making her perfect in the National Planning Officer role.  Sally and I have been a fantastic double-act in the National Manager role in the past weeks. As always I can see her looking at my progress on things through her lens, seeing issues and options I would never have thought of, and finding a path to build on what we have both contributed. We trust each other implicitly.

The last hours before handover, as always, are a bit frantic, as I remember things and forget things in the one breath. I realise how exhausted I am when I brief two separate people about exactly the same thing within an hour, and have no recollection of the first briefing. I lose my handbag three times in the building. I stop mid-sentence and have no idea what I was about to say. My shift log becomes even more important and I write everything down.

Knowing there are great people taking over from you should (and does) give you a great deal of comfort, but it’s the pace of things that raise the anxiety levels again. Things change right around the country almost every hour. It’s selfish, but I know that within two hours of me leaving the building, the situation will have changed so much that I will be completely out of the loop.  We train for this and we know this, and it’s why we have a tight incident control system in place. But personally it makes the separation anxiety a little worse, especially on the first of my days off.

Some familiar faces from my Emerald stint arrive back in from their second deployment. Many of them have been out working in some of the most devastated parts of the Lockyer Valley, where the destruction and deaths were are their highest. They look exhausted,and they will have seen and heard many dreadful things in past days, but every one of them cannot say enough about the spirit and determination of the people they have been assisting. These are the people we have been working to support, back here in our air-conditioned office. This is the reason I love my job.

Somehow I find time to take a breath and finish off the last of my handover bits. I pack up and wander around the building saying goodbye to a few people. Later, a rare and brief evening of relaxation with two colleagues sees us dining alfresco in Chinatown, lanterns swaying above us, alternating between work stuff and good conversation. Anna and I have made a good team: why wouldn’t we? We are both Scorpio Fire Horses, born three days apart. Almost twins, but very different personalities. Her calmness and ability to boil things right down to what can work quickly has been fantastic, and her fresh view on things has been so helpful.

This morning I awake at my usual 5.30 slot but happily snuggle back down and sleep for another hour and a half. Before I head for the airport I shall go out for a nice stroll around Roma Street Parklands across the road. It’s hard to get away from Red Cross in this town: this lovely city park is where our International shelter delegates do their practical exercises during training, using standard-issue tarpaulins and little else to build a temporary home for a family of five. I shall avoid that part of the park today, and go smell the flowers instead.