Lessons Learned During Natural Disasters

Jul 15, 2007

Across the world and across the street, on the battlefield or at the scene of disaster, where there are signs of trouble you will see one of the most recognized symbols in the world: the Red Cross. With a legislated role as “auxiliary to the public authorities,” in addition to its non-profit status, humanitarian mission, volunteer-driven structure, and long history in disaster management, the Red Cross has a unique vantage point to gain knowledge from lessons learned and promote best practices in disaster management for the volunteer, non-profit sector.

“The Canadian Red Cross believes strongly in a partnership approach to ­dis­aster management,” says Don Shropshire, National Director, Disaster Management for the Canadian Red Cross. “We strive at all times to work cooperatively and effectively with governments, emergency response agencies and other NGOs – to bridge all gaps during a disaster response. This need for a coordinated effort is a key best practice we’ve developed based on experience.”

From mitigation to recovery – the partnership model
“When it comes to a partnership approach to disaster management, we’re committed,” says Shropshire. “Partnering effectively throughout the disaster management continuum, from mitigation to recovery is crucial.”

Disaster management is a key priority for the Canadian Red Cross nationally. Those responsible for the program locally are establishing working relationships with other emergency response agencies and local governments to clearly define roles and responsibilities. Over 600 Red Cross branches have signed a Memor­an­dum of Understanding with local municipalities, and others have been included in local emergency response plans.

“Integrated exercises with all parties to the response must take place periodically to ensure all organizations are on the same page,” says Shropshire. One of the best examples of the success of this concept is the excellent response orchestrated by the Greater Toronto Airport Authority following the Air France flight that left the runway Pearson International Airport in July 2005. By regularly exercising emergency plans and having internal and external partners involved, allowed the GTAA to respond so efficiently and effectively to that near-disaster. “In the heat of a response, the last thing any agency wants is lack of clarification over who is supposed to be doing what,” asserts Shropshire. “And when it comes to the NGO role, the other aspect to be considered in advance is who is covering the cost of the operation.”

The Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative (GHD)
The Good Humanitar­ian Donor­ship initiative is assists governments to develop best practices to ensure help reaches more people, more quickly, more effectively and more equitably.

From an international perspective, responsible and effective funding of disaster response has been discussed in some detail since 2003. This initiative provides a forum for discussions on Humanitarian Financing and other shared concerns. Defining principles and standards provides both a framework to guide official humanitarian aid and a mechanism for encouraging greater accountability.

Bringing aid during the 1998 ice storm.

Parties involved in the GHD base their work on 23 good practices and principles that focus on saving lives and alleviating suffering, providing assistance according to need, and adequate, predictable, flexible funding. These principles and practices include:

  • Humanitarian action should be guided by humanitarian principles (meaning the saving of human lives and alleviating suffering); impartiality (meaning the implementation of actions based solely on need, without ­discrimination); neutrality (meaning that humanitarian action must not favour any side in any dispute); and independence (meaning autonomy from the political, economic, military or other objectives).
  • Support mechanisms for contingency planning by humanitarian organizations, including, allocation of funding, to strengthen capacities for response; and
  • Support and promote the central and unique role of the United Nations in providing leadership and co-ordination of international humanitarian action, the special role of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the vital role of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and non-governmental organizations in implementing humanitarian action.

Best practices and principles developed within the GHD initiative can certainly contribute to discussions and planning around funding the response to national, regional and local emergencies.

Regardless of government recovery assistance guidelines, the Red Cross works closely with the affected community to assess needs and distribute assistance in partnership with local Com­munity Services. “We are here to help the people affected by disaster and bridge the gaps that will enable governments to focus on the many priority issues they face in these times, including infrastructure and security,” explains Shropshire.

Damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Engaging NGOs in the decision-making process
The critical function of decision-making during a disaster response is typically managed, and rightly so, by the lead government agencies in the affected area. Tangible value can be realized by including NGOs early in the decision-making tree.

Based on the role designated for each NGO, consideration should be given to ensure these organizations are given more than just an agency representative role in the Incident Management System structure. NGOs can augment the community’s overall response capacity in all phases of Emergency Management.

“The sole focus of the NGOs is on the well-being of the people affected by disaster,” says Shropshire. “The impact of decisions made is felt most by victims, and the expertise of the NGOs brings great value to this process.”

Pre-position supplies for effective deployment
In recalling the ice storm of 1998, Shropshire reflects on another experience that has led to the improvement of processes and the development of relationships. “Pre-existing warehouse agreements and positioned supplies were not sufficient for this response,” he states. “Since then, we have worked diligently to ensure that agreements with our suppliers of materials and storage space can accommodate a large, flexible surge capacity.”

Utilizing available information from the federal department of Public Safety and provincial emergency management offices, the Red Cross recently undertook a comprehensive risk analysis.  

It was noted that centralized storage of materials in major centres like Toronto will do little to help communities that are regularly affected by severe weather, such as the Bruce Peninsula on Lake Huron where frequent road closures confine residents to their immediate area. This risk analysis enabled the Red Cross to pinpoint trouble spots and position appropriate supplies to ensure a faster response through a more accessible supply.

“The placement of cots, blankets, and hygiene kits, trailers, and dedicated towing vehicles allows us to establish shelter for 500 people in most parts of Ontario within 3-4 hours,” says John Saunders, provincial director of disaster management for the Canadian Red Cross. “Along the Bruce Peninsula we are in negotiations to provide extra trailers and smaller quantities of supplies in communities where weather conditions often isolate them.”

Volunteers: A crucial surge capacity, an episodic challenge
The Red Cross could not carry out its work without the thousands of volunteers who support its programs and services, particularly its trained disaster management volunteers. The organization trains volunteers at three levels – all of which include shelter management, feeding, communications, registration, tracing, clothing and personal needs assessments. Supervisory and managerial training is delivered to volunteers skilled in human resources, finance and administration, logistics and family reunification.

These volunteers stand ready, 24/7, to respond – at a moment’s notice – to disasters ranging from individual house fires to the larger community-wide or state/provincial disasters.

The strength of the Red Cross move­ment is its ability to harness and focus the power of humanity where it is needed most. When a medium- to large- scale disaster hits the headlines, untrained members of the public, motivated by this sense of humanity, inevitably come forward to offer assistance. These well-intentioned individuals may come from within the affected area, from another community, province or even another country.

Some individuals come forward with a specific skill or trade to offer, others are simply willing to do whatever is needed. Some self-organize while others approach established volunteer organizations to offer assistance. The self-deployed volunteer can be very useful in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Citizens are sometimes seen rendering first aid to their neighbours, extricating victims from debris, or establishing local gathering points to identify the missing.

Effectively managing volunteers can prove a challenge for first responders.  While additional capacity is often needed at such times, harnessing this additional skills and good will to make a positive contribution to the relief effort can complicate the plan.

During the remarkable ice storm of 1998, which virtually shut down eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec, the Canadian Red Cross was faced with a large number of walk-in or episodic ­volunteers. “We admittedly did not have comprehensive screening and orientation processes for this type of volunteer at that time,” recalls Shropshire. “We used that experience to further develop and strengthen such processes.”

Now, in order to ensure the safety of clients and the quality of its service delivery, episodic volunteers who will have direct contact with victims must receive the same careful security screening as trained volunteers do.

The Red Cross recognizes the value of episodic volunteers to rapidly ramp up capacity. This was implemented very effectively following Hurricane Katrina. The American Red Cross called on its Canadian counterpart early in the response with a request to send volunteers. The Canadian Red Cross began deployments immediately, but soon received an offer from the Government of Ontario that would enable additional capacity. Ontario Public Service employees were screened rapidly and selected for deployment based on skills required in the field. They were then provided with an orientation to the Canadian Red Cross and its operations.

“This effort was a most effective augmentation of the support the Canadian Red Cross was able to deliver to our sister society,” says Saunders, one of the leads in support of this collaboration.

The Canadian Red Cross is now rolling out a long-term strategy for the engagement of episodic volunteers through its Ready When The Time Comes workshop. Through this partnership initiative, businesses and governments allow their employees to receive basic preparedness and response training, which not only increases their personal preparedness, but gives them improved knowledge to work with the Red Cross during a major disaster. When help is needed, the company releases some of these trained employees for a period of time to engage as Red Cross volunteers in support of response efforts.

“The community spirit demonstrated by the employers of our volunteers is commendable. They allow employees three weeks per year to be deployed by the Red Cross when needed, without it affecting their salary or vacation time,” notes Shropshire.

Lessons Need to be Applied – Not just Learned
“I’d say that the single most important lesson to be learned, is to actually learn from our experiences and apply that knowledge in preparation for the next ­crisis,” says Shropshire. “Far too often, once the crisis period has passed and the media spotlight has moved on to the next story, lessons learned and the financial support required to implement change fade as well. It is imperative that emergency managers and all those associated with response continue their efforts to advocate on behalf of their constituents and clients, keeping lessons learned on the budgetary table so that we can at least mitigate the suffering of people due to foreseeable emergencies.”

Tanya Elliot is a Director with the Canadian Red Cross, Ontario Zone.
© FrontLine Security 2007