same same, but different

Twelve months ago I ranted about how private sector people often perceive those who’d spent time in the not for profit world, how things were often much the same in both theatres despite the efforts (on both sides) to differentiate.

In the year since then, I’ve navigated the waters of the private sector and reflected on what I miss the most – and least – about the not-for-profit world.

The IT support is still woeful: I am still looked after by a bunch of blokes (yes, they are all men, unlike in Red Cross) who bend over backwards every day to do what’s needed on a shoestring and without any obvious IT strategy. Tick.

I am still working for an organisation talking about a flash new e-recruitment process that still hasn’t arrived. Tick.

I still work in a small, committed team whose mutual support and comedy banter is a joy and inspiration most days. Tick.

I still do a week of duty officer (a little more frequently with a lot more to do out of hours). Tick.

I’m still known as Darth Doyle.

Performance management is different. Holding people to account is not only talked about here, it’s expected. In the past year I’ve handed down countless first warnings and a handful of final warnings, and I have fired a couple of people. You don’t perform, you’re out. We have no room for passengers. At Red Cross we huffed and puffed quietly about poor performers until they left: not hugely helpful to the rest of the team or to the quality of our services.

I travel much further to work, but at least when I get there I have my own office, my own quiet working space. No more open-plan working. So I don’t work from home as much – I don’t need to. I can be hugely productive in my work environment.

Finance management is not too different. I steward my labour budget with a rod of iron and question every request to put another shift on the road; but in my not for profit role we counted the pennies obsessively too.

The business intelligence is much, much worse. I managed a $7 million budget with almost no BI at Red Cross. Now I manage a significantly larger budget with absolutely nothing apart from what I can pull together myself with my less-than-adequate Excel skills. It never ceases to alarm me how little analysis support I have, and how much relies on my long-winded workings.

I sit back at the end of each day, week, month, like every General Manager, and look at the numbers. It’s winter, so patient activity is up. This means more work, closer logistics management, worse traffic, but more revenue too. If my P&L matches budget and my productivity levels look good, I stop fretting and look ahead to the next month.  Job done. It’s that simple.

At Red Cross, it was a little different. Of course we carefully counted the financial cost of putting a thousand volunteers in the field, delivering hundreds of meals across dozens of towns, managing dozens of evacuation centres in flood-affected regions, doing outreach to hundreds of households following a devastating bushfire. We had funders and philanthropic donors to satisfy. We had to prove that we were a trustworthy steward of scarce relief and recovery funds, to demonstrate that we could make those funds go far and touch as many people as possible.

But we didn’t sit back at the end of the day (or summer) satisfied that we did what we said we’d do and stayed within budget. We worried about the outcomes of our actions. And I mean worried.

We visited disaster-affected people in their homes, providing information and practical support. We provided a safe place to sleep for people who’d had to evacuate their home. We took thousands of calls from people trying to locate their loved ones after the bushfire raged through their neighbourhood. We kept detailed spreadsheets and produced reports to show how many of each action we did.

But we also asked: did that visit, place to stay, phone call actually help those people in a meaningful way? Could we measure in some specific way exactly how our assistance hastened their psychosocial recovery? How could we be sure we did no harm to anybody, ever? How would we be able to measure our contribution in terms of long-term outcomes, not short-term outputs? Because if we couldn’t, chances are the funding would dry up, the donors would walk away.

Looking at my current job through that lens, it would mean that not only would I be concerned that we had moved every patient on time with no overtime, but I’d have to do research on how the quality and timeliness of my patient transport materially affected their healthcare pathways and by how much it hastened their recovery.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Perhaps it’s as easy as saying that governments and large corporates outsource only simple tasks, but we all know that’s not true. Across the world every day people are cared for in hospitals, kept secure in prisons, fed in schools, trained at work, looked after in nursing homes, given home help and cooked meals, all by armies of workers employed not by the government or the company being paid, but by outsourcing companies like mine.

We are not required to measure and be paid according to the health outcome of the patient we care for, the rehabilitation prospects of the prisoner we secure, the adult fitness and health levels of the school-child we feed, the quantitatively improved career prospects of the worker we train, the quality of life of the elderly, vulnerable lady we look after every day.

We deliver good service, on time and on budget, we record the data, we send the bill, we deliver the budgeted amount of profit, we switch of our laptops off and go home, we do it all again tomorrow.

But everything we do will have had some impact on the lives of the people we have served.

And yet…. and yet. The private sector is still seen as more complex, more difficult, more challenging, the real world. The private sector is where the real workers are, the ones who know what they’re doing.

The not for profit world is perceived as softer and fluffier, populated by well-meaning, left-leaning, sandal-wearing social workers who are probably still being bankrolled by Mummy and Daddy. Those who can, do. Those who can’t will probably be able to get a job in a charity somewhere.

I look back at the strategic planners, the IT service delivery gurus, the change managers, the logistics people, the departmental heads I’ve worked with in the not for profit world. All of them could run rings around many of the people I’ve come across in the private sector, in terms of intellect, strategic approach, long-term focus, commitment, ethics and sheer hard work. But most of them will never be considered for a role in the private sector, because their skills are not believed to be transferable.

And you know, it’s probably true. Many of their skills won’t be transferable, because they would not be used or valued. Many of them would see their skills wither away in the private sector, with its often shortsighted focus on this month’s bottom line, this quarter’s results or the exec team’s end of year bonus.

So do I regret my move? Not at all. This is not a polemic against the private sector world, just another small attempt at levelling the playing field. Most working environments, most teams, most organisations have more in common than divides them.  They are all less unique than they believe they are. And that’s across the board.

Private sector workers coming into the not for profit space will have some valuable short-term tactical focus, pretty robust people management skills, a fair amount of less-thinking-more-doing attitude to contribute.

Not for profit workers taking on a private sector role may have the ability to look a little further out and a little further up, consider the unintended consequences a little more, understand reputational risk and how to avoid it a lot better. They’ll sure as hell know how to make a little go a long way and still look good.

Same same, but different.


washington dc for dummies

Americans aren’t rude: it just seems that way to the uninitiated. They can be polite but very direct, as are the Customs Hall officials at LAX where I land like a stunned bird after a fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight. “Ma’am, move up the line please. Aisles fifteen and sixteen for US citizens only. Have your passports ready.” Their tone is peremptory at times, but their smiles are genuine and there is no attitude served up with the instructions.

I “stand in line” (rather than queue) for just under an hour before my passport is stamped and my fingerprints taken by a solemn young man. Finally, I am in. Just enough time to navigate the baggage hall, a quick walk to Terminal 4 and a rigorous airport security checkpoint before my next plane takes off. The airline staff at the gate invite serving US military personnel to board alongside their premium frequent flyers. From faraway countries it’s easy to forget that the USA is a country at war.

The culture shock continues: wifi available on board the aircraft. How lovely. I am served a decent cup of tea and settle down to watch the view. Desert comes first, then mountains. Icing-sugar-coated ridges give way in time to meandering textbook-perfect rivers lined with perfectly oblong green fields.

Four hours later we descend slowly through the whiteness, the horizon disappearing only to re-emerge as a thin blue line framing a more prosaic brown landscape. Lower down, white clouds spill over into a shallow valley and I can make out individual farm buildings, horse-training circuits and patches of woodland. Soon, the outer suburbs take over, the Potomac River comes into view and the golf courses proliferate. It all looks like a game of Sim City. We must be near the capital.

The shuttle bus drops me off at my hotel and Manny the porter sweeps me and my luggage to my room. In my effort to get the tipping right, I fear I over-do it, but over the course of my stay Manny proves to be a good ally. Maybe I didn’t get it wrong after all. I drop everything and head back out, anxious to get some fresh air and see my new neighbourhood. The air is fresh, alright: within minutes I know I will need a much thicker coat and a hat that covers my ears properly. I stroll the streets of the George Washington University precinct, locate a convenience store, the Metro station, the closest bar, the Red Cross offices. The monuments and memorials of the National Mall are nearby but the cold is too much. I retreat to my hotel and the anonymity of the basement restaurant.

Next day after a couple of meetings I take the train to Pentagon City. A businessman stops to chat with me as we wait on the platform. He’s spent some time in Ireland and speaks fondly of West Cork. We pass the time pleasantly enough until the train appears, then he excuses himself, saying he never travels in the last carriage. It’s my first experience of the phenomenon of the Random Friendly American. But I’m left wondering mostly if there’s something about the last carriage I should know about.

Some say that the enormous Pentagon building is just a hologram, but the nearby shopping mall is real alright. Searching for food, I make a circuit of the food court twice before realising there is little choice beyond deep-fried everything. Then in the corner, I spy a quiet salad bar. I order the smallest, simplest chicken salad my jetlagged brain can describe and prop myself at a plastic table. The salad is enormous. I plough my way through about a quarter of it, then pick out as much of the chicken as I can before giving up.

Full, I make a beeline to Macy’s where a nice young man helps me choose a padded overcoat to keep the DC winter at bay. Later that evening I take a stroll down to the White House just a few blocks from the hotel, my new purchase keeping me warm while I navigate the other tourists along the railings of the South Lawn. Past the impressive Treasury Building, I make my way to the Circulator bus stop and pay my one dollar for the ride to historical Georgetown.

It’s not quite as busy as I expect, perhaps due to the bitter winds coming in ahead of the snowstorm they have forecast for the north-east states. I peer through the windows of the M Street shops, taking notes for later. The side streets remind me a little of parts of Dublin with their higgledy-piggledy houses and colourful front doors. I take a table at the Peacock Cafe and partake of a doorstop of meatloaf and decent glass or two of Argentinean Malbec.

Back at the hotel, culture shock of a slightly more alarming nature reveals itself. I have a kitchen attached to my room, but no kettle to be found. There is a coffee percolator and I try that, but it simply doesn’t heat the water to boiling point. How does one make a cup of tea in this town?

return to christchurch

Twelve Red Crossers from all over the world – Britain, Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Malaysia – have come together ahead of a Disasters In Developed Countries workshop in Melbourne. We visit our NZ cousins and hear the wisdom of their words following the tragic earthquakes in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.

A flying visit to New Zealand takes us from Auckland, to Wellington, to Christchurch in less than thirty hours. On the hotel courtesy bus from Christchurch Airport we look at each other, trying to remember how long ago we met, and realise it was only the morning before. It already feels like we have been through so much more than that together.

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11 highlights of 2011

It’s been a hell of a year. Tough at times, full of adventure, travel (some work, some play), hard work, sorrow and joy. Here are my eleven highlights of 2011.

1.  Queensland

The year started busy. I spent most of the first three months hanging out in Brisbane with an army of Red Crossers, responding to event after tragic event. The staff in the Grand Chancellor come to greet me every time I checked in with a “Welcome home, Ms Doyle!”. The night before Yasi hit, I sat in a hotel restaurant with colleagues trying to understand the enormity of what was about to hit, the only Irishwoman at a table of battle-hardened Aussies. In Emerald, I met the Governor-General and got a lesson in looking elegant in tropical heat. Some of the people I worked with developed into an amazing support network that I still have today, and one or two deep friendships have developed from the times spent together. I gained four kilos and none of my summer clothes fit anymore, which didn’t matter as I spent the whole of the summer in a white Red Cross business shirt and black cut-off cargo pants.

What I learned: Just because it’s disaster season doesn’t mean you need less fibre – or more alcohol – in your diet. FitFlops are the only footwear you need. Talk about how you are feeling often, and use others to gauge how you are going. Forgive. Hydrate. Never go anywhere (even a disaster zone) without eyeliner: you never know who is going to drop by.

2.  Christchurch

Ten days in ChCh working with the NZ Red Cross after the earthquake was some of the most challenging but amazing time I got to spend this year. I slept in a tiny room in the friendliest little B&B in the world, and got used to the ground shaking beneath me. I saw regular people turn into heroes and find resilience in themselves they never thought existed. I feel privileged to have been able to help in my small way.

What I learned: Always leave your boots by the bed in an earthquake zone, and keep your phone fully charged. Leap instantly to a doorframe when the ground doesn’t stop shaking after five seconds. Be ready to accept help as well as give it. Take a break. And don’t watch live footage of horrifying tsunamis right after coming home.

3.  Lorne

A chunk of normality at the end of summer: the Easter/Anzac weekend down the Great Ocean Road in Lorne with Orlando.  Arriving Good Friday evening with a roast dinner in the boot. Long walks by the beach in unseasonably warm weather. Mid-afternoon naps just because we could. Watching the surfers and browsing second-hand book stalls in the market. A cosy Spanish dinner in a lovely tapas bar on Saturday night. Time to heal and rest and recover and reconnect.

What I learned: Heal. Rest. Recover. Reconnect.

4.  Barbados

A week in Barbados in June, spent mostly staring at the waves (or floating in them) at Maxwell Beach, near Orlando’s parents’ house. Amazing Caribbean food. Weekend nights at Oistins fish market. Plenty of good Mount Gay rum in our afternoon rum punch. Chefette’s legendary all-beef rotis just because they were there. Spending time with Orlando’s Dad. Shopping for jerk seasoning and pepper sauce in the local supermarket. Scuba diving with Orlando in the sites where he learned to dive.

What I learned: One dive is never enough. One all-beef roti is never enough. One box of seasoning shipped home is never enough. One week is never enough.

5.  Mexico

Nearly three weeks travelling through the Yucatan peninsula, visiting Mayan ruins, climbing ancient pyramids, staying in great little guesthouses and eating proper Mexican food. Diving Dos Ojos at last after twelve years of waiting. Gazing out across the jungle with Orlando from the top of a crumbling pyramid in Coba. Margaritas and good tequila. A long walk.  Discovering cochinita pibil.

What I learned: There are only so many tacos, tortas, empanadas, burritos and quesadillas you can eat. The green chilli salsa is the hottest and the best. The Mexicans keep the good tequila for themselves. Never walk home at night through the jungle.

6.  Tasmania

An August weekend with Mena in Tasmania, our favourite state. Gourmet food at Bruny Island and Salamanca Market. The Goddess of Russell Falls at Mount Field National Park. Driving through God’s own country to Lake Gordon. Discovering the secluded beaches of South Arm and falling in love with Opossum Bay.

What I learned: There is not enough time before we die to explore Tasmania the way we want to. You will always buy more cheese than you can possibly eat at the Bruny Island Cheese Company. You don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to discover the hidden gems of this small island; you can do it in a Class A hire car. Always bring layers to Tasmania – the weather can surprise you.

7.  Fiji

What more does a body need than ten days on a tropical island, with a little bungalow, a pristine beach a few feet away, a comfy hammock to swing in, a reef full of fish on the doorstep and more Fijian curry than you can shake a stick at. Diving in clear blue waters with more marine life than I’ve ever seen. Snoozing on a hammock under a palm tree, whenever I want to. Watching a wedding take place on a low-tide sandbar out at sea: the wedding party appears to be walking on water. The graceful hand movements of the women and men as they dance for us after the lovo feast.

What I learned: Never go anywhere without nuclear-strength Baygon. Two swimsuits are not enough for one week. There is always time for a little more snorkelling.

8.  Ireland

Ten days in Ireland might seem short, but when all you want is to visit family and get a little Christmas cheer, it’s all you need. Shopping on Grafton Street with the lights twinkling above. Meeting an old friend by chance in a city cafe. Twenty-four hours in the UK just to catch up on all the gossip with Katharine. Putting up Mum’s Christmas tree one morning, listening to old cheesy Christmas tunes and reminiscing about Christmas trees past.  Christmas present shopping with Ashling and Connor. New puppies to adore. Turkey and ham with all the trimmings. Creating new Christmas family memories, even if they were a few weeks early.

What I learned: Don’t wear your precious Links bracelet over your winter gloves. You will always get a good winter coat in Dublin. Melatonin really helps with jetlag. You can never buy too much Newbridge Silverware jewellery.

9.  Darwin

They asked if I was going to Darwin to see Obama. No, I replied: he is in town to meet me. Memos from the hotel asking us to behave on our balconies (in case the Secret Service shot us) didn’t stop me waving enthusiastically at the Black Hawk helicopter that kept flying past. A lovely dinner with Julie Groome at Pee Wee’s. Celebrating the opening night of Darwin Pride with Chris Power. Power walking early in the morning, then trying to catch up with Hydralyte for the rest of the day. Dragging the living room furniture out onto the balcony for a Friday night feast, because they had taken the balcony furniture away at the start of cyclone season.

What I learned: Behave on your hotel balcony if POTUS is in town. Buy more Hydralyte before you travel in the wet season. Always pack one more white singlet top. Try not to turn into a comedy double-act when presenting serious stuff with Julie.

10.  Altona Beach

The one constant in my year: the boardwalk at Altona saved my sanity more than a few times this year. Park up near the Seaholme end of town, on with the Walkman and the sunvisor (not trendy, but it keep my hair at bay), get some UK garage going and power walk to the other end of the beach or maybe right into the park at Truganina. I know every step of the route and its familiarity soothes me, music or no music, sunshine or no sunshine, high tide or low tide.  It helped me get fit and healthy after the Summer of Love – both in body and in spirit.

What I learned: You can always walk just a little bit faster. Carry another layer with you in the boot of the car unless it is January or February. Sometimes it is best to leave the headphones behind and listen to the waves.

11.  Home

Sounds silly, but with all the travel I did this year, a Christmas and New Year holiday at home in our own house was the perfect getaway. No worries about what shoes to pack. Guaranteed comfy bed and perfect pillow. Only the best local red wine and bubbly served. Friends and family close at hand. The best travelling companion in the world. Excellent wi-fi. No air travel or packing or taxis or travel insurance to worry about.

What I learned: There’s no place like home.

Christchurch earthquake deployment – day ten

It’s always hard leaving at the end of a long stint. I am always desperate to get home, and at the same time reluctant to leave. I pack my bag and leave a thank-you note for John and Alison at the Thistle. happily, my last taxi ride in ChCh is the lovely John, who again refuses to take any payment and gives me a big hug as I say goodbye.

I sit in the EOC, pulling together a couple of recovery planning documents as my last contribution. Somebody brings me a flat white with an extra shot: probably a bad idea. I’m hyper enough already.

Suddenly my travel plans change.I need to be up in Wellington far earlier than planned for my debrief. I run around saying some hurried goodbyes, and then it’s off to the airport.

At the Red Cross national office, I sit chatting with Aaron, sharing stories. A wave of tiredness washes over me. It’s probably a really good time for me to head home. My debrief doesn’t happen in the end: something about a meeting with the minister. Never mind: we’ll do it by phone later. I head for Cuba Street and the quietness of a hotel room.

You know you’re in Wellington when:

  • you can drink the water from the tap anytime you like.
  • you have your own flushing toilet and shower. Bliss.
  • there is space on your hotel room floor to lie down and stretch out if you wish.
  • the earth doesn’t shake gently every hour or so, like it was doing in ChCh just before I left.
  • the minutiae of the earthquake response does not dominate all news programmes.
  • I don’t have to think so much about night-time protocols (but I do anyway – I’m actually close to the fault-line here). I do a bit of discreet knocking to check out the relative strengths of the walls in my room to help decide which doorframe to run to if anything happens.

I meet Claire for a bit to eat. We chat over Indian and Malaysian food, and make short work of a NZ shiraz. My focus slowly starts to return to normality as the conversation stops being dominated by the earthquake, and news and gossip emerge from the world outside ChCh.

A nightcap in the Havana rumhouse is a lovely end to the night. I sip at a beautifully made Zombie (I never find out the secret ingredient) and vow to have an alcohol-free week when I get home.

In bed I wake a couple of times, convinced I can feel the room shaking. Next morning I check Geonet. Nothing in Wellington at all. I am now officially imagining things. What I don’t imagine, however, is the main electric light coming on of its own accord around four in the morning. I awaken, panicked. I can’t explain it.

My last few hours in NZ take me down Cuba Street on a sunny autumn morning. I buy a new pair of earrings and breakfast like a queen in Ernesto’s.

The quirky style of my fellow diners is classic Wellington. Even my (female) server has a nicely-trimmed moustache and winged Doc Martins. A “We ♥ ChCh” poster in the window is the last hint I have of the world beyond the trendiest street in the capital city. I collect my bags, and head for home at last.

Christchurch earthquake deployment – day five

Six in the morning finally feels too early for me. I’ve been up between five and six in the morning for two months now, but today it all seems too hard. I am not the only one, it seems. For some reason, the Red Cross garage is not running as smoothly as usual. The cordon crews are running late – they were not told about their 07.30 briefing. Most of the incident management team are also late. Carolyn, our new counsellor, slept right through because her alarm didn’t go off. Nobody can find the shiny new maps I brought yesterday. It is cold and raining.

The city centre cordon is being shrunk today, to allow some more business owners and residents back to their buildings. The queues are long as people inch past the police and military checkpoints. At least the soldiers and police are cheerful despite the miserable weather.

Men in trucks and women in shiny new cars drive slowly through their local streets. Finally after almost an hour Hayley drops me within walking distance of the art gallery. Japanese TV cameras film us as I walk along. Anxiety levels are high. Concerned residents speak anxiously into mobile phones as they approach their homes. Building contractors line the streets, heading to inspect some of these buildings for the first time. People unused to driving within the cordon tailgate others who are respecting the 30km per hour limit. They just want to be on their way. Our volunteers sit in the two local information centres, waiting to accompany people on their first visit to their green, yellow or red stickered homes.

The Welfare section is its usual frantic pace, but it feels a lot more homely to me now I know a few faces. The phone rings  constantly, and a steady queue of people wander up with questions. I even get a big fireman today. Nice. The morning operations briefing is friendly, to the point and very informative. The queue for coffee is pretty good. The day is looking up.

Sitting on what turns out to be a lengthy call, I look up and see a handsome young policeman standing in front of me. First a fireman, now a policeman, I think. Marvellous. He is perhaps mid-thirties, good-looking in an understated way, and in full regalia including a peaked cap and stab vest. He waits patiently until I finish, then asks, “Are you Red Cross?” “Yes I am, can I help?” He thrusts two twenty-dollar notes into my hand. “This is for you. Make sure it goes to wherever it’s needed. You guys are doing a great job.” Whatever trials the day has held for me melt away. A policeman telling us we are doing a great job? People are just fantastic.

Later in the day I accompany an outgoing colleague to the airport to do a handover. We sit drinking tea and I write notes frantically as she talks. I spend a lot of time in airports, so I know what an airplane taking off feels like. This is different. I sense the vibrations coming up through the floor at me, rather than through the air. Carolyn sees me looking around and tells me it’s an airplane I feel. I disagree. Carolyn says she can’t feel a thing. Why would she? She’s from Wellington where the floor shakes all the time. Less than a minute later, she interrupts herself. “That was definitely one.” All in all I felt about four tremors in a row – or perhaps one long one. Turns out it was another 4.9er, but almost 200km away.

Christchurch earthquake deployment – day four

A change of scene: I head to the centre of Christchurch, to the art gallery. Less than five years old, it emerged relatively unscathed from the earthquake on 22 February, with not one of its hundreds of panes of glass even cracked. As such, it made a perfect location for the multi-agency Emergency Operations Centre, and I am to be the Red Cross Liaison Officer there today.

We drive along towards the central cordon, two colleagues and myself. Within minutes we reach the outer cordon of the CBD, where traffic is controlled. The driver, a Cantabrian herself, remarks that she never imagined seeing armoured tanks and military personnel on the streets of her home town.

The cordon is a serious one. We stop the car and the young soldiers inspect our photo ID with care. Round here we can see a number of commercial and industrial buildings with the red graffiti on the front, showing that they are doomed for demolition. The further we go within the central cordon, the more beautiful the buildings become and the sadder it is that they have been irreparably damaged.

Walking the few blocks from the car park to the art gallery, the quietness is deafening. These streets should be lively on a sunny Saturday morning. Instead, the only movement is that of cars with lights and sirens on, and people with various uniforms on, all heading for the same building. We pass by the media tent where many Asian and worldwide TV outlets wait. As we enter the building we navigate the hand wash checkpoint (every earthquake brings a risk of gastric problems with it) and the sign-in table.

The Red Cross table is in one of the galleries off to the right. All of the paintings are gone now, taken down yesterday for protection. I was sort of looking forward to spending my day gazing at works of art when working. In the foyer a large advertisement heralds the coming of “De-Building: … inspired by a moment usually hidden from viewers – when an exhibition ends and the “de-build” begins.” Who knew?

Angela and I make a base camp at the empty Red Cross table and start getting our bearings. I wander next door to Strategic Planning and Intelligence, and head up the beautiful staircase to find where the Recovery team lives. Angela finds our outreach coordination people in the adjacent gallery space. Their day is starting off at a relaxed pace, but their afternoon will get frantic as two landslides threaten more than a hundred homes and the workload increases exponentially.

The art gallery café is still operational, but for free. Workers can wander in at any time for a cup of tea, a latté, a slice of cake, a piece of fruit. The lunchtime queues form quickly for chicken cacciatore or noodles or salad or a sandwich. A desk out on the foyer has box upon box of bottled water and Powerade.

The Planning Intelligence guys don’t have much to offer as yet in terms of recovery data. The Public Information and Media team are working in an interesting space, where “the rumour mill” whiteboard is given as much attention as fact. They know that out there, perspective is reality.

There are more than seventy or eighty people in this gallery space. The noise is deafening at times, with everybody talking to each other and on the phone at the same time. Suddenly the earth shakes and for three or four seconds, the whole room goes silent. I stand in a strange automatic surfing position (legs widely-spaced, knees slightly bent, arms a little outstretched) as the wall opposite me flutters lazily like a heavy curtain. That was a big one. Later I find out it was a 4.1.

I wonder how anybody thought this was a slow gig. People from strategic planning, welfare, Pacific Islander Affairs swing by the desk, passing on information and requesting help. I attend a couple of briefing meetings and manage at some point to visit the portable toilets parked outside, hoping nothing seismic will happen while I am on the throne.  Somebody wants to know where we think the transportable shower blocks should go first when they arrive. In between phone calls I develop some briefing notes for my successor, and wish they had left some paintings behind for me to gaze at.

Before I know it, it is past five o’clock and my colleagues from the outreach coordination desk are ready to go. We stand outside in the freezing cold waiting for our lift. Jenny is three weeks away from her wedding, but still she turns up every day for shift. Red Cross is important to her. She points out a nearby high-rise building, and tells me she was up on the sixth floor the other day. The whole building is deserted,  but tomorrow residents will be allowed back home for the first time. She tells me she would not want to be returning there. They are beautiful homes, she says, but their contents are destroyed and the view from their once-envied windows will be heart-breaking.

Back at base, I chat to my fellow Red Cross workers. Some have had bad days, others are worried that the tiredness has not hit them yet.  A couple of colleagues from Melbourne have now arrived and their familiar faces are so good to see. I brief the Incident Controller after my day, and am gratified to hear most of what I tell him included in the team briefing just before dinner.

It is Saturday night and some of us are determined to have at least one team dinner. Before I go I have a quiet conversation with a colleague who had a particularly stressful day. It’s what I was brought here to do: provide peer support to fellow Red Cross workers as they go about their jobs. We sit in a small room upstairs on a couple of comfy office chairs and I listen to the story of her day.

Just as we finish our chat, the building starts to shake. It’s a serious one this time. My colleague – a Kiwi herself – instinctively jumps to her feet, opens the office door and stands within the doorframe. The building is really shaking at this point. Others outside hold their dinner plates in hand, trying not to spill gravy, whilst others try to stop the white plastic garden table from migrating across the room. Graeme tries to dive beneath the table. I’m  not sure what protection it would have afforded. I watch as the wall opposite me curves and sways. Downstairs, Jacqui looks out the window and sees waves forming on the rain puddles in the car park. She is with four Australians and they freeze to the spot, waiting for somebody to do something.

After what feels like an eternity, but was probably fifteen seconds, the movement slowly stops. My heart is still racing. I sit back down abruptly. My colleague looks at me sagely and suggests that I should make my way quickly back to the doorway. I’ve never moved so fast.

Later over a glass of wine in a suburban ale-house, we learn that the quake we’ve just experienced was a 4.8. Graeme is surprised. He reckoned it was at least a 5. I am not sure I would like to experience anything more than this magnitude. I knew within a couple of seconds that my options were limited and that my survival was subject to sheer luck if the quake got any worse. Earlier in the day, a colleague in the EOC told me that most of the people in her sixth floor council office on the 22 February had been thrown around so much that one colleague had carpet burns.

Back in my tiny room I position my hiking boots a little more carefully by the bed this time. There have been fifteen quakes today, all above 3.0, and two above 4.0. What a day.