During a disaster

Ari Räsänen
Image: Ari Räsänen

The Finnish Red Cross specializes in providing humanitarian aid in a quick and efficient way.

00:30 a.m.
The earth quakes at a magnitude of 7.2 on the Richter scale. The epicentre is at a depth of ten kilometres, at a distance of 15 kilometres from the capital of one million people.

01:00 a.m.
The Red Cross of the country suffering from the natural disaster immediately starts search and rescue operations in cooperation with the local authorities. The departments survey damages under coordination of the central office. Help from trained volunteers is invaluable at this time.

03:00 a.m.
Messages from international news agencies on the disaster reach the international relief director of the Finnish Red Cross, who immediately arranges a teleconference among key disaster relief personnel.

04:00 a.m.
The situation is chaotic. It is clear that the local Red Cross cannot manage without outside help. The national organisation sends an aid request to the Union of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The regional Red Cross office supports the reporting connection between the national organisation and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies located in Geneva.

04:15 a.m.
Teleconference of the Finnish Red Cross: The first assessment of the preparedness required to help is made in the middle of night. Preparations for the relief operation are started immediately even when the official request for help has not arrived yet. Stock lists are reviewed, locations of the nearest airports studied and the batteries of satellite phones charged.

04:30 a.m.
Notice of an official request for help and a short situation report arrive from Geneva. A total of 3.5 million people live in the area affected by the earthquake. The destruction is massive.

National organisations are requested to report on their ability to help. In the first stage, disaster response units are needed for the distribution of aid, logistics and a mobile clinic.

05:00 a.m.
At the same time, a work group meets at the Finnish Red Cross central office. It has been called by the disaster response unit coordinator, and the participants include the planner of international aid for the destruction area, international personnel aid coordinator, representative of the logistics centre, EU advisor, financial controller, press officer of the Finnish Red Cross and a representative of the fund-raising section of the Finnish Red Cross. Preparations for the operation continue non-stop.

05:30 a.m.
The Finnish Red Cross sends an SMS as a reply to Geneva on the preparedness of disaster units. It explains that it is ready to send an aid distribution unit within 12 hours. In addition, its ability to send a surgical hospital, health station and a logistics unit is also communicated.

An alert of a quick departure is sent to delegates, asking them to reply by email.

05:45 a.m.
The regional office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies starts mobilising Regional Disaster Response Teams (RDRT). The RDRT teams consist of volunteers and employees of national organisations who share the same language and cultural background. Many of those with RDRT training have also gained experience in the disaster response work of their national organisations.

The regional office assumes principal responsibility for technical reporting and mainly operates as an expert on the region towards Geneva.

05:50 a.m.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies starts putting together a Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT). It aims to send the team within a couple of hours.

A FACT team is an international multi-discipline team of experts consisting of very experienced relief aid professionals. The team will evaluate the overall need for aid and coordinate the relief operation.

06:00 a.m.
The 45 FACT-trained Finnish Red Cross delegates receive assignment message by SMS from Geneva.

06:15 a.m.
Geneva reports that they want to use response units of the Finnish Red Cross in the operation. They suggest that an aid distribution unit is sent with the FACT team.  

The Secretary General of the Finnish Red Cross decides to send aid units according to the proposal of the director of international aid operations.

06:30 a.m.
The FACT coordinator in Geneva gets replies from three Finnish FACT professionals. The most suitable of them, an experienced logistics professional, is selected for the job.

07:00 a.m.
Geneva sends a notice of selection of the Finnish logistics expert in the FACT team. In addition, they approve the sending of the aid distribution unit. Preparations for departure start.

The Finnish FACT team member is briefed at the FRC central office where they also get their equipment.

07:30 a.m.
The special team of the aid operation meets for the third time. News about the destruction caused by the disaster looks even worse than expected.

Because of the urgent schedule, they decide to look for delegates for the aid distribution unit among FRC staff. Two employees are recruited from the domestic preparedness team and two from the logistics centre. They are all included in the personnel reserve of FRC's international aid section and have undergone special training in aid distribution tasks.

08:00 a.m.
Geneva sends a more specific message that they want a logistics unit and a health station from the Finnish Red Cross. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies aims to coordinate the relief operation evenly between national organisations ready to help.

The level of preparedness of any organisation should not be decreased alarmingly. Also the financial investments should be distributed fairly. Media attention in operations probably also plays a role.

08:30 a.m.
Many kinds of operations start at the Finnish Red Cross to implement the operation.

The international aid planner of the geographical region in question immediately starts preparing the funding for the relief operation.

It is decided that the aid distribution unit is funded from the FRC Disaster Relief Fund. Negotiations are started with the humanitarian aid unit of the Finnish Foreign Ministry for the funding of the other units.

Recruitment of delegates is enhanced by sending a confirmation SMS on the implementation of the assignment to all who have received special training for rapid relief operations.

Operations start at the logistics centre to lease a freighter. The demand for freight airplanes grows exponentially in times of humanitarian crises.

10:00 a.m.
A Disaster Relief Fund collection to help the victims of the earthquake is started by decision of the Secretary General. The fund-raising and communications departments work at full capacity.

10:30 a.m.
The FRC special team meeting asks the EU advisor to survey possibilities for additional funding. The advisor has already had active contact with Brussels and gives their status report. The need for aid will not end for a long time.

1:00 p.m.
The regional response team RDRT arrives at the disaster area as the first external aid organisation. The national organisation instructs the RDRT team to conduct rescue and evacuation tasks and to survey the locations for distributing aid.

2:00 p.m.
The aid distribution unit is packed for delivery on a scheduled flight as no vehicles are sent with the unit. A Finnish FACT team member flies to the disaster area with the same flight that lands 300 km from the capital. The journey continues with vehicles coordinated by the local Red Cross. The condition of roads is appalling in places.

11:30 p.m.
The FACT team arrives at the destination. The national Red Cross of the country in question always carries the responsibility for coordinating the project. The team is briefed by the national organisation. Every member is also assigned a local partner. This ensures that the lack of common language or poor knowledge of the local situation do not slow down the operation.

The division of work is clear: Part of the team goes out into the field with employees and volunteers of the national organisation to evaluate the situation and the need for help. Another part of the team negotiates with local authorities and representatives of the United Nations, for example. In addition, the FACT team supports the national organisation in whatever they may need.

01:00 a.m.
The RDRT team members who surveyed the aid distribution locations help to choose the location for the FRC unit and set it up.

05:30 a.m.
Geneva receives the first status report from the FACT team. The need for help is enormous: The number of dead and injured will amount to hundreds of thousands. Reporting communications continue.

07:00 a.m.
The special team of the aid operation meets for the tenth time at the Finnish Red Cross central office. The status report received from the regional organisation is harsh: More than one million people have lost their homes. Initial evaluations on sending additional resources are made.

08:00 a.m.
The Minister for Foreign Trade and Development has signed Finland's commitment to the relief operation. This ensures that the health station and the logistics unit can be sent.

09:00 a.m.
Street collectors set out. People are definitely willing to help. Newscast from the disaster area is difficult to watch.

02:45 p.m.
The freighter needed for sending the aid units, Iljushin IL-76, arrives at the Pirkkala airport near the FRC logistics centre after 24 hours.

04:45 p.m.
The personnel department of international relief operations has completed the recruitment. A total of 15 Finnish delegates set out on a one-month assignment.

07:00 p.m.
The delegates are briefed and see a doctor. The media interviews them. Operating guidelines and contact information of the national Red Cross of the destination country are sent from Geneva.

07:00 a.m.
The aid distribution unit sent by Finns has started its operation with help from the RDRT team. They are distributing tarpaulins, blankets, mosquito nets, water cans and hygiene packages.

12:00 a.m.
The Humanitarian Aid department of the European Commission, ECHO, is positive about funding the relief operation. This is very good news as the extent of damage in the earthquake area becomes more and more clear with every passing hour.  

01.30 p.m.
The Finnish Red Cross is especially well up to date, as the Finnish FACT team member holds close contact with the central office. A positive surprise is that the airport of the destination country is functional even though the flight control towers have crashed. This means that aid will reach its destination.

03:00 p.m.
Loading the Iljushin starts. Five hours later, the plane takes off with the Finnish delegates. People at the logistics centre sleep for the first time in two and a half days.

05:00 p.m.
The Red Cross of the country struck by the earthquake is totally overloaded. It was not a strong organisation to begin with, but luckily it has lots of active volunteers. Help is needed.

07:00 p.m.
Finnish delegates unload the cargo at the airport. Five hours later, the plane continues its journey. The local Red Cross briefs the newcomers. They are shown the location of the health station: construction starts at a church courtyard and won't stop until everything is ready for patients.

The logistics unit is sent to the airport. Their task is to ensure and facilitate the entry of aid supplies and to ensure that help is transported to the aid distribution locations.

+3 days

07:30 a.m.
According to a FACT evaluation report, 40% of the buildings of the capital have collapsed. 200,000 have died and 300,000 injured. A total of 3.5 million people live in the earthquake area, 1.3 million of which have lost their homes.

08:30 a.m.
A new request is sent from Geneva for rapid relief units. The Finnish Red Cross immediately replies that it has capacity to send additional units.

08:45 a.m.
The FRC Secretary General gives their permission to send another aid unit.

09:00 a.m.
The FRC special team meets. Unofficial communications with the German Red Cross pays off. Coordinators of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are proposed that a general hospital is sent in cooperation with the Germans. This proposal is met with positive feedback in Geneva.

11:00 a.m.
The search for the location for the general hospital is vigorous. In a city crippled by an earthquake, it is difficult to find a suitable area for a large field hospital.

01:00 p.m.
The international aid planner and the EU advisor start preparations to apply for funding for the general hospital from the Humanitarian Aid department of the European Commission. The preparation of the application continues until the night.

10:00 a.m.
The FRC health centre opens its doors. The stream of patients is almost continuous during the first couple of days. The need is great.

12:00 a.m.
The collection of the Disaster Relief Fund has generated €230,000. People's will to help guarantees a quick delivery of aid. Without the funds of the Disaster Relief Fund, the aid distribution unit could not have been sent immediately after the earthquake.

04:00 p.m.
The European Union approves the FRC application to cover the expenses of the general hospital.  

04:30 p.m.
Preparations for sending the general hospital start. Also the recruitment of delegates is started again.

01:00 p.m.
More than seventy relief organisations have signed up with the authorities. Coordinating aid is difficult. The Red Cross operation proceeds without major problems as the Red Cross has been active in the area for decades before the disaster.

04:00 p.m.
A location for the general hospital is found at the stadium of the capital. The following day is confirmed as the departure day.

2:00 p.m.
It's time to send off the general hospital and its staff. This time, a special Finnair flight delivers the aid. The German Red Cross employees wait at the airport of the destination country. Supplements are also sent for the aid distribution unit.

It's been a week. The international aid planner has taken over the management of the operation. The special team still meets regularly, but no longer every couple of hours. The international aid planner must keep the reconstruction phase of the country in their mind at all times. You have to think ahead in the disaster relief phase.

The operations of the aid units of the Finnish Red Cross have settled down. Local employees are being recruited and trained.  The logistics centre is busy replenishing its stock.

Purchasing standard products such as blankets, water cans and tarpaulins is quite simple, but ordering and arranging competitive biddings for more specialised items invariably takes time, effort and skill.

+ 1 month
The second rotation of delegates starts after a month. The number of Finnish employees is already smaller as the local workforce can be used to replace Finnish staff.

Feedback from the first group of delegates is valuable for both the continuation of the operation and further development of relief operations. Comments are requested for equipment that was used for the first time. Also any deficiencies found in the field are thoroughly reviewed.

The returning delegates are offered psychological counselling. The assignments cause mental stress even for the most experienced delegates.

+ 3 months
Embedding the disaster relief phase into a long-term development cooperation programme starts. The earthquake has also destroyed a large part of the country's healthcare system. The equipment of the general hospital and the health centre are donated to the local hospital. Equipment of other units is donated to the local Red Cross.

A medical advisor of the Finnish Red Cross has visited the country to study the situation. A development cooperation programme focusing on health would make a natural continuum for disaster relief and patch up some of the problems of the badly suffered healthcare system in the country.

A community-based health programme is planned in cooperation with the national organisation. In addition, staff of the newly set up local representation of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent are consulted on planning long-term programmes.

+ 6 months
A community-based health programme designed to last at least three years is started. Taking the needs of the community into account, special focus is based on water, sanitation and hygiene programmes to prevent any epidemics that might break out.