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Humanitarian Aid Workers Are Ready for When Disaster Strikes

The moment a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis erupts, the team supporting the affected people on the ground and aiding in all the logistics involved are humanitarian aid workers. The men and women working in this field must cope with high pressure situations on a daily basis and the decisions that they make can have life threatening consequences. However, much preparation is done beforehand to make sure when a crisis does happen, supplies and teams are ready.

We recently spoke with two experts, Mr. Nick Murdoch, Global Head of Aid & Relief Services at DHL; and Mr. Colon Miller, Volga-Dnepr Group’s Global Director of Humanitarian, Government & Defence Programmes, to better understand the complexities and inner workings of this specialized industry.

Preparing for the Worst

Speaking with both experts one fact became clear, it was that preparing for a disaster beforehand is one of the most efficient and effective ways to making sure life-saving goods are readily available, and is a big part of the day-to-day operations of working in humanitarian logistics. Moving these goods from place to place is a full-time effort. Having warehouses full of needed items is a good starting point, but just one step in a multilayered process that involves coordinating with many different agencies, both governmental and private.

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Mr. Colon Miller

Mr. Murdoch said, “There’s a number of actors that come together for humanitarian aid. Governments, NGOs, the UN, and private companies all come to work together to deliver these goods. The reality is that all these groups are moving humanitarian aid around the world constantly. Whether it’s to support long term programs, pre-positioning stocks, readying for the next disaster, or just as ongoing support. The stocks kept in warehouses are often- ran through government entities or special arrangements in countries. Others outsource the warehousing to a 3rd party, like DHL, and those stocks are held there until they’re needed for a disaster. They’re generally held in a strategic location like, Central America, Dubai, and South East Asia, as these areas act like main hubs.”

“There is usually a high level of international cooperation when nations and relief agencies are all trying to deliver urgent aid shipments to where they are most urgently needed. However, the locations can often be extremely remote and have little in the way of airport infrastructure. This is why Volga-Dnepr is asked to participate in so many relief missions because of our wide experience. We’ve been offering fast response services to deliver humanitarian aid and special equipment to support relief efforts for 26 years, responding to humanitarian disasters and missions all over the world, all while working with various government overseas aid departments and humanitarian organizations,” said Mr. Miller.

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When Disaster Strikes

All the preparations that have been done are put to the test when a disaster happens, often unexpectedly. Beyond the initial pre-positioned aid that may be in country, the humanitarian aid teams must jump into action to help support the huge amounts of extra aid that almost always finds its way into the country. While these donations are appreciated, it can be like trying to direct a waterfall like amount of water through a garden hose; it’s often too much, too suddenly.

One area that deserves special attention are the chokepoints that can cripple an operation. Especially areas like the airport where supplies enter into the country, getting the correct goods to the right area takes special maneuvering. Even through these difficult times, countries still need to manage their borders so all the correct paperwork for customs needs to be maintained as well, adding to the burden and time crunch of an operation. Keeping this balancing act going takes coordination that must be like clockwork, with shipments delivered on-time, safely, and securely. The challenge isn’t like a normal supply chain where you get the first shipment right and everything flows consistently afterwards. Every one of these shipments almost becomes a mini-project in its own right.

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Mr. Nick Murdoch

Mr. Miller said that, “In cases like a tsunami, earthquake or volcano eruption there is often no warning. They just happen with a devastating affect and then it’s a race against time to deliver help. We have a good size freighter fleet and aircraft positioned around the world so we can always find the quickest way to respond. Again, the response comes down to all of our years of experience. You need to understand what has to be done to get the aircraft airborne as quickly as possible and that’s why relief agencies and humanitarian organizations value what we do. We are fortunate to have a great team of people at our locations around the world that know exactly what to do. Of course, the agencies we work with and fly for also have a high level of expertise too, so it’s the best possible combination. Once the first wave of relief cargo is delivered and the situation on the ground has stabilized, then the relief effort takes on a slightly more strategic role, depending on the nature and expected longevity of the disaster’s impact.”

“With a sudden large number of goods coming into the country, there’s not necessarily the capacity to quickly escalate to be able to handle it all, which leads to bottlenecks,” said Mr. Murdoch. “There’s such an influx of aid that’s generally well intentioned, but at the same time no country wants a whole lot of people turning up, running around and doing whatever they like, there needs to be some control, so normal customs procedures are still usually kept in place. An area DHL often helps in is being at the airport and helping to control some of those unsolicited items. There’s been no arrangement to know what to do with them past the airport. The DHL GoHelp disaster response teams (DRT) help to get the goods into a warehouse, sorted, and then find the way to get it distributed. It’s crucial to making sure it’s not just sitting at the airport blocking runways, hampering the ability to get other planned items into the country. Getting goods to the country where the disaster has occurred, is only part of the exercise. The more challenging part is the last mile logistics; getting the goods from arrival to the beneficiaries that need it.”

After the initial large wave of goods have entered into the country, there’s a massive amount of emphasis on getting the goods to the right place, at the right time. Organizations need to be able to assess the situation and what the requirements are to plan accordingly. Interestingly, Mr. Murdoch made the point that, “a mistake made often in these tense situations is sending aid that’s not appropriate for the situation or sending goods that are already available locally. By sending disaster relief you can actually impact local markets, which is a critical component of the future recovery of the area. It’s all about finding the right balance.”

The mobile medical vehicle loading in Miami Photo courtesy of Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Future Improvements

In a perfect world there would be no need for humanitarian aid shipments. Until that happens, the aid agencies that help support affected areas around the world will need to continue their work in getting goods to the people that need it most. Finding innovative solutions to challenges that can arise with aid shipments and being able to keep the supply chain moving is all part of the job for humanitarian aid workers, however there are still improvements that could be made. We asked both experts what improvements they’d like to see come into the humanitarian aid field.

“One area that is critically important in Humanitarian Aid, and an area that I believe may be overlooked in the planning stages of disaster response or humanitarian support, is the importance of logistical support and logistical planning,” said Mr. Miller. “Many times people think about what to bring, what to donate, what to collect, but don’t really consider the challenges of getting it there. I would like to see improvements in and at Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Assistance Conferences, that allow for logistical companies and logistical experts to address attending audiences and agencies where they can share how they and their companies and networks around the globe can be leveraged early in planning stages and early at the onset of disasters, to provide relief agencies and organizations with best options for delivery of goods relative to the particulars of a disaster and the affected disaster area.”

Mr. Murdoch concluded by saying, “I think throughout the industry an emphasis needs to be placed on developing a deeper understanding of what’s needed and required. A large percentage of what we do every day is the same, but often the smallest things will cause the largest problems. On our end, if we don’t fully understand what our customer requires it’s hard to deliver on what they need. At the same time, if an NGO doesn’t understand the capabilities or requirements of the freight company it creates challenges and gaps. There’s an ongoing challenging trying to get everyone on the same page. I’d like to see more cooperation to help smooth all the processes out.”