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American Red Cross builds international disaster response skills
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Gina Guinta
May 16, 2008

Recording a shelter location on a handheld GPS, preparing a disaster operation plan of action and then sending it via satellite phone, and dining on meals-ready-to-eat were just a few day-to-day realities of disaster responders—including an American Red Cross Relief Emergency Response Unit (ERU) member—in Peru last August.

What is an Emergency Response Unit (ERU)?

  • A team of trained, skilled disaster workers
  • Deploys with equipment within 24-48 hours of a major disaster
  • Remains in-country for 1-4 months
  • Supports and builds capacity of the disaster-affected national society
  • Developed and coordinated by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
  • Financed and managed by more than 15 national societies

What are the types of ERUs?

  • Relief
  • Information Technology (IT) & Telecommunications
  • Water and Sanitation
  • Basic Health Care
  • Hospital Care
  • Logistics

What types of ERUs does the American Red Cross deploy?

  • Relief
  • IT & Telecommunications

"When the Red Cross or Red Crescent in another country asks for help, it's our responsibility to send people with the right preparation, skills and personal qualities ready to give immediate support," emphasized Tracy Reines, Director of International Disaster Response at the American Red Cross. "Field-based training is a key element of that preparation."

The American Red Cross has offered Relief ERU training since 2003—when the Relief ERU tool was launched—to enhance the skills of experienced disaster workers. This year, however, the ERU training had an added element.

From April 20-26, the American Red Cross hosted its first joint Relief and IT & Telecommunications ERU training in Panama City, Panama.

"The Relief and IT & Telecommunications ERUs work closely together on disaster operations," said Travis Betz, Field Operations Officer for the American Red Cross, "bringing them together for this course creates a more realistic training environment and teaches collaboration, which is essential to a successful mission."

Many participants focused on relief—such as how to conduct assessments and coordinate distributions of relief supplies—while others concentrated on setting up and maintaining computer systems and emergency communications networks in the field. All participants learned how their work supports the local Red Cross or Red Crescent.

While the ERU training includes classroom discussions and presentations, it's the integrated, hands-on activities that add real value and distinguish the course from others.

"Our goal is to give participants a taste of the field," states Colin Chaperon, Field Operations Senior Associate. "Field exercises that simulate disasters allow participants to practice response skills, while showing patience, flexibility and resourcefulness required in these complex situations."

"The training was an incredible experience," confirmed Laura Hevesi. "I know the lessons learned this past week, and there were many, will serve me for a long time to come."

As part of the largest humanitarian organization in the world, the American Red Cross never works alone internationally. This training was no different. The Danish Red Cross provided the curriculum and three facilitators for IT & Telecommunications portion. Last year, when the Danish Red Cross was forming its Relief ERU, the American Red Cross sent facilitators for their training. It's a classic case of sister societies helping each other out.

But partners aren't only sister national societies. Just as the American Red Cross relies on donor support during disasters like the Peru earthquake, donors also aid in preparing to respond.

Course participants use GPS and radios during the field-based ERU training.
Course participants use GPS and radios during the field-based ERU training.

When the American Red Cross had to send equipment—satellite phones, computers, hand-held radios, GPS, tents and cots—to Panama prior to the course, Federal Express shipped our goods free of charge.

Three other donors—Delta Airlines, UPS and Daimler Financial—attended the course for two days as observers to learn just how in-depth and realistic the field-based course is.

"It was obvious that the Red Cross is a remarkably well-organized, experienced and professional organization that provides invaluable help to the community worldwide," commented Alice Benitez, a manager with UPS. "Equally remarkable was the human quality, dedication and passion of the individuals, both employees and volunteers, that were part of the training. Seeing it all come together in the field exercise was very inspirational."

As part of the world's largest humanitarian network, the American Red Cross alleviates the suffering of victims of war, disaster and other international crises, and works with other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to improve chronic, life-threatening conditions in developing nations. We reconnect families separated by emergencies and educate the American public about international humanitarian law. This assistance is made possible through the generosity of the American public.

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