5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … Thunderbirds are go! If you have ever seen this British TV puppet animation series or the Hollywood movie spin-off, you’ll know that Thunderbirds is about an organization called International Rescue, which is called into action when a disaster strikes somewhere around the world. From their base in Tracy Island, the Tracy brothers – Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John – usually face severe time pressure to get to the disaster site and carry out their latest rescue.
It was a real-life disaster that led Thunderbirds’ famed creator Gerry Anderson to come up with the concept for the show. In October 1963, the Lengede mine in the then West Germany flooded, trapping 50 workers far below ground. After a whole two weeks and several rescue attempts, 11 miners eventually made it out alive. The lengthy drama attracted international media attention and became the first TV news story to receive the type of “breaking news” coverage so common today.
Forty years later, it was another disaster, the massive earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam in 2003, that led logistics company DHL to believe that it could to do more to help in such situations beyond just transporting emergency supplies. Its people on the ground had witnessed the difficulties experienced by the Iranian authorities trying to organize all the incoming relief goods at the airport, where the apron and runway became blocked and planes could not land.
The result: Disaster Response Teams (DRTs) – to provide logistical assistance and give airport authorities the critical support needed to handle emergency relief. Globally, three DRT headquarters were set up Singapore, Dubai, Miami – for Asia Pacific, Middle East/Africa, and the Americas, respectively. In 2009, DHL set up a related initiative in the form of a disaster preparedness training program, Get Airports Ready for Disaster (GARD).
Not long after the devastating Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, I had the chance to meet with Chris Weeks, DHL’s director for humanitarian affairs. Chris explained how the Disaster Response Team from Singapore was quickly mobilized to go out to Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in Asia, and manage the operations of a 3,000 square meter warehouse near the main airport, which was being used as the consolidation point for the incoming relief supplies.
He also emphasized that all DRT members are volunteer staff from DHL with expertise in areas such as ground handling and warehouse and inventory management. To cope with the often fraught nature of disaster aftermaths, they undergo special training so that they are able to handle the demands of a crisis situation.
The staff do not get involved in physical rescue work, as there are other agencies far better equipped in this area, but usefully apply their logistics skills from the everyday commercial environment to the sudden demands of a humanitarian crisis.
Upon request by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA0), DRTs can be on the ground and operational at a disaster-site airport within 72 hours. In just over a decade, Disaster Response Teams have been deployed to 30 major incidents around the world, and the company now has 400 trained volunteers it can call on from its global workforce.
Call from Nepal
And it was just over a month ago when the call from the UNCHAO came again. The 7.9 Richter scale earthquake in Nepal on April 25 killed 8,800 people, injured another 23,000, and left several hundred thousand more homeless. The DRT team arrived on the ground within 48 hours and had the immediate task of cleaning up Tribhuvan Kathmandu International Airport’s congested tarmac area, which was already filled with relief supplies.
As Chris Weeks pointed out in a media statement, “If we hadn’t done this, it’s likely the airport would have closed within the first 48 hours of the earthquake because it would have run out of space and equipment, and NGOs would have been unable to locate their aid and relief goods. We implemented a system to maximize the use of limited resources for ongoing relief efforts, and set up processes to meet the cargo at the airside to make the necessary arrangements in the fastest possible time.”
As well as poor infrastructure – the single-runway airport can only process nine planes at a time, with a 196 ton cargo weight restriction per plane, and lack of equipment – only one antiquated forklift could be located by the Disaster Response Team, a second heavy earthquake on May 12 caused more devastation and DHL extended its deployment till the end of the month, by which time the DRT had handled and processed more than 2,000 tonnes of relief supplies.
It’s worth mentioning that while it may have the most evolved response structure, DHL is not only logistics company that lends a helping hand in disaster situations. Both UPS and FedEx responded to the Nepal earthquake by arranging special relief charter flights as well as providing generous cash donations. And under the LET (Logistics Emergency Team) initiative, Agility, Maersk, TNT and UPS have established a cross-company partnership to provide logistical support to humanitarian relief efforts during natural disasters.
No-one knows when or where the next deadly earthquake or sweeping cyclone will strike. But away from the hard-nosed business world for just a while, lending valuable logistics expertise and appropriate equipment and resources when disaster strikes will speed relief to where it’s needed and help to save and improve lives.