Training: Diary of a Rookie Emergency Aid Worker

There's nothing quite like learning on the job - which is why Save the Children sent a group of staff into the wilderness for six days with no electricity and limited resources at temperatures as low as -9deg C. But these staff were not trainee aid workers; they were UK national staff taking part in an Emergency Operations Programme to find out what life is like on the front line. Lisa Bedelian, global HR manager at Save the Children, reports on her experiences in Otterburn, Northumberland, 10 miles from the Scottish border.

DAY 1 - EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED. It's a cliche we've heard a million times, but never has it rung so true as in an emergency situation.

We arrived last night in Otterburn, at what will be our base camp for the next six days. We are in an isolated, unheated farmhouse with no shower facilities, sited on Ministry of Defence land an hour's drive from an active military training camp. It is raining and snowing, and temperatures can drop to -9deg C. But we have a roof over our heads - we are luckier than some of our colleagues currently in Pakistan.

For the next six days, we are 20 members of Save the Children's emergency team, participating in a simulated emergency deployment. In our day jobs, we all have roles within the organisation, ranging from auditors to media officers, from fundraisers to administrators. The question we all have now, though, is "what are we letting ourselves in for?"

We are split into four teams. Our facilitators include the deputy director of emergencies and other emergency personnel, all of whom have first-hand experience of working in a range of humanitarian emergencies. It is their role to push us beyond our limits.

On the eve of the first full day, huddled in my sleeping bag in a dormitory with 10 others, I am apprehensive but excited - we have a great week ahead of us.

DAY 2 - ANYONE WHO THINKS EMERGENCY WORK is glamorous is badly deluded. After yesterday's 15-hour day and a night shivering in our beds, today we must don yet more layers and get on with the task. Everything becomes more urgent when we're told that the security situation is escalating.

Each morning we start the day by producing a situation report for our emergencies director. Today's focus is on carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the situation. This means spending a frenzied day talking to various people involved in the scenario, including separated children, refugees, journalists and even people suspected of ethnic cleansing. We need to make sure we ask the right questions to get the information we need to start our programming. It is a difficult and often emotional task - it makes me realise what a skilled and complex role the emergencies staff have.

After a very long day, we wind down by playing games such as charades.

It's amazing what fun you can have stuck in the middle of nowhere with no alcohol and 20 overworked aid workers.

One of the tasks for the week is to learn the phonetic alphabet off by heart, so I try to sleep by singing alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot and the rest in my head.


We wake up freezing and smelly - there are no showers at our base camp and the taps in the sinks run only ice-cold water. In these conditions, wet wipes can be a saviour.

Today we have a workshop on the Sphere Project guidelines, a set of standards on how voluntary organisations should work in disasters. We are then thrown into the scenario of applying these guidelines when faced with trying to set up a shelter for 2,000 displaced people.

At the same time, we must cope with two of our staff members being taken hostage by local rebels (happily, they are later released unharmed) while also showing a valued celebrity donor around the shelter.

Later on, my team is allowed to have a hot shower back at the military base. I can't explain how excited we are at this prospect. It exceeds all expectations and brings home how much we take life's little luxuries for granted.

DAY 4 - BECAUSE OF A NUMBER OF DIFFICULTIES with communication yesterday, today we have a session concentrating on communication protocol in emergencies.

Our facilitators share 'war stories' from when they were working for other organisations, which show how inadequate communication caused staff to be put in danger and, in some cases, caused fatalities. The potential severity of the mistakes we made the previous day becomes very apparent.

Luckily, we have the perfect chance to get it right.

One of our course facilitators, who had been deployed to Pakistan after the earthquake in October last year, talks us through the specific role and structure of an emergency programme. We all start to cherry-pick the roles in which we can see ourselves (emergency operations manager for me). However, it is clear we still have a long way to go.

Because of the escalating insecurity in the near vicinity and with UN troops moving out in the next 24 hours, we realise that we need to plan our evacuation for the following day. Ironically enough, this coincides with some of the heating and hot water being restored to our base camp.

Better late than never, I think - we've just had a heavy snow blizzard and the temperature is down to -9deg C. We start to plan our escape.

DAY 5 - WE AWAKE TO THE NOW HABITUAL smell of sloppy beans, greasy bacon and boiled eggs. It's time to leave.

We put together a comprehensive evacuation plan, but the UN then tells us we have to depart immediately. Chaos erupts and, to make things more complicated, our drivers don't speak English - and it's my turn to be team leader.

The reason behind the quick evacuation is that the scenario is actually blurring with reality. It snowed heavily last night and the roads are treacherous - the drivers can't risk taking a large number of passengers.

We have to walk until the roads get safer and the Land Rovers can pick us up. That means walking, and walking, and walking until we reach the 'border', where we must negotiate with (and bribe) border control to let us through. As we cross the border, we look at our watches - we have been walking for more than four hours.

The facilitators take us back to the army barracks. We have now finished the course and what remains is our reward - 'fine' dining in the mess hall and drinks in the Naafi. We are exhausted, but elated.

DAY 6 - AFTER A CELEBRATORY NIGHT, we pack up, say our sad farewells to Otterburn and make our way back to our offices in Farringdon, London. I've never been on a training course that has affected me so much.

Do I want to become an emergency aid worker? It's not glamorous, conditions are harsh and it's physically, mentally and emotionally challenging. As I can tell from our intrepid emergency facilitators, however, it gets inside you. I can't think of anything else I want to do more.


After only a few days back in the office, I am given a specialist emergency assignment - three weeks with the drought response team in Nairobi, Kenya.

My role is to set up the HR processes, policies, contracts and recruitment for the programme from scratch.

The Emergency Operations Programme had focused on how to work long hours in difficult circumstances, faced with different personalities and pressures.

I soon learn that all of this is crucial to dealing with real-life emergencies.Members of my team live together and work six days a week on a large boardroom table with one internet access point. We work 12-hour days and talk work over breakfast and dinner - the only time we are on our own is when we are sleeping. But we are so absorbed that we don't notice.

The experience is demanding in so many ways. But I find that if you are prepared, flexible and willing to get stuck in, you will have one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences. Looking back, I can finally understand what our trusty facilitators were talking about back in Otterburn.

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