Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Rapid response

Around the world, every year, there are news headlines of violent storms, cyclones, hurricanes, flooding and huge waves. Vast areas of countryside at home and abroad have been flooded and devastated by natural disasters. Perhaps surprisingly, the RNLI has been present in some form or another in many of these situations.

7 Year ago in Mozambique after weeks of torrential rain, an eight-man RNLI team was asked to take desperately needed medical relief to 10,000 people in villages marooned by floodwater in Mozambique. These areas had been written off as ‘impossible’ because helicopters could not land there and no one could get there by road.

The lifeboat crews had to navigate uncharted rivers in temperatures of around 47°C. Some of their boots melted and the boats were too hot to sit on so they had to plaster them with mud, to cool them down. The crews feared they would encounter crocodiles, hippos and poisonous snakes, not to mention being bitten by the malarial mosquitoes. They were also told that there were anti-personnel mines in the area – all very different conditions to those normally experienced by lifeboat crews.

Following the 2000 Mozambique operation the RNLI formed a permanent Rapid Response Unit (RRU), which the UK government’s Department for International Development (DfID) could call on at 24 hours’ notice. The RRU consists of three teams of up to 20 people, which rotate their state of readiness. One team is on 24-hour standby, the second at 14 days’ readiness and the third acts as a reserve pool, all ready to travel to assist in flood relief work across the globe. The cost of RRU deployment is generally borne by the DfID.

Here in Swanage a number of our crew are on RRU teams and each year undergo a significant amount of extra training including specialised Swiftwater Rescue Technician (SRT) training which prepares them for the dangerously complex behaviour of floodwaters and rivers. Once crew members become SRT qualified, they undertake annual exercises to keep their skills and knowledge up to date, and have to requalify every three years.


Unknown said...

I'm gonna play devils advocate on this one again.

"Rapid Response Teams" of the international rescue represent an enormous expenditure of money for very little benefit.

It is a well established fact in Swiftwater & Flood Rescue that the "rescues" are done in the first stage of the flood (while the waters are rising), by unskilled unqualified people who are immediately in the area. This fact translates itself across rescue disciplines - particularly into USAR.

So, the various "international rescue" teams posted in the UK all have a 24 hour response time. But in 24 hours we are out of the rescue phase of the flood, and into the recovery. The flood waters will have either stabilised or started to recede. The people who tirelessly collect data and information about this subject constantly berate rescue teams for calling actions done in this time frames "rescues" on the basis that the individuals life was not in danger, they are "recoverys" where they are moving the individual to a more comfortable place. Both commendable actions, but there needs to be a clear distinction between them.

Assuming that distinction is clear, how many people do international rescue teams "rescue"? Or in RNLI terms how many "lives saved"? I don't have the figures, but I would guess that the number is very low.

So what benefit is there on flying out a team of a dozen or so very highly trained experts, when the evidence shows us that the VAST majority of rescues are undertaken by untrained local people. This action is akin to trying to put a plaster on an amputated leg.

I would argue that the appropriate response comes in the fourth stage of the flood (the recovery and preparation). The stage that WE are now in. We know there will be a flood, we can guess where it might be, but we don't know how bad it's going to be. In THIS stage we need to PREPARE people to deal with what is coming, we need a crack-team of INSTRUCTORS to go an teach locals of whatever country it is how to effect simple and safe rescues. Teach them the basics of how to rescue someone without putting themselves in danger (see for example the video of the upside down car in a river in Turkey).

I don't think anything that I have said is particularly contentious (yet). I'd argue that "international rescue" type teams allow the organisations involved to feel good about themselves, that they are doing their bit, despite the evidence showing that they don't make a great deal of difference. In the eyes of the public, it must have made a huge difference... because why else would a charity take a team of volunteers away from their day jobs and fly them plus a few tons of equipment round the world if it WASN'T going to make a big difference.

To close, please don't misinterpret my phrase "international rescue" teams - in that, I am NOT including the humanitarian aid agencies - eg Oxfam, Red Cross. But International SAR is a waste of money.

Unknown said...

Reading a little more about the RNLI RRUs, it is apparent that they do train local people after the event.

But my other comments still stand.

I would also question the appropriateness of using the D-class in an Urban flood situation - where the water will be full of solvents and chemicals which dissolve the glue - the water will be full of hidden sharp hazards (eg road signs?) that would reduce that nice orange Hypalon to tatters.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the guys in the RRU don't do a good job. But where is the line drawn? How many thousands of pounds does it cost to ship out a specialist team to ask them to be delivery boys? Of course, you cannot put a price on a life, but the DfID have to. Or we could just sink our whole economic budget into helping people around the world. I don't want to discuss the politics of the decision making process; but ultimately it's a balancing act...


lifeboatjohn said...


Many thanks for your comments. You clearly know a great deal more about this sort of thing than I do. However, you can be confident that the RNLI are responding to a real need. I am certain that they wouldn't be involved if this weren't the case.

I know from talking to the lads who were in Mozambique that they performed a very necessary function there. No, they did not save lives by plucking victims from the water. They did however, ferry doctors and medicines and food stuffs to places that they would otherwise not have reached.

On completion it is usual to save on shipping costs by leaving the bulky equipment there. I know that in Mozambique the boats were left and the team provided training to enable locals to use them in future.

In my limited experience it is always easy to find reasons not to act in these situations. And no solution is perfect, however, I truly believe a slightly flawed action is better than no action at all.



Unknown said...

lifeboatjohn said:

"They did however, ferry doctors and medicines and food stuffs to places that they would otherwise not have reached. "

That's exactly my point.

I do not see the point in spending thousands of pounds on high quality training, thousands of pounds on high quality equipment, and thousands of pounds shipping all of that around the world, when the training and equipment is not going to be used.

I'll draw a parallel; an Atlantic helmsman being asked to provide safety cover for a canoe race on a boating lake that's 1m deep in a 10hp Dory. OK, it's a necessary task, but it's not utilising his (or her) skills.

I freely admit I know nothing about the Mozambique floods, and I am happy to be corrected; but I would be gobsmacked if there were no boats available in that country, and no people to pilot them. I fail to see that there was "no other option" than to spend 10s if not 100s of thousands of pounds sending out experts from the RNLI.

Incidentally, (and you are probably in a better position to find this out John) how many times have the RRU been deployed internationally, and nationally?

Does the investment in their training (and ongoing refresher training) represent a good investment of the charity's money, when compared with the RNLIs more traditional rescue areas?

Please do not interpret anything I have said as being negative against those who volunteer to be part of the RRU teams.