1. You need medical skills.
Even the most basic training is crucial. If for no one else, yourself— going into areas where there are infinite ways of becoming injured, it’s important to at minimum, be capable of treating yourself and then when needed, others. Start with the basics and work your way up.
Check out: Your local Red Cross, Fire Department, or nearest medical center/clinic. If you are tight on funds, have limited access to training in English and are looking to renew an expired basic certification, here are two great online sites: FirstAidWeb and FirstAidForFree.
2. You need a working knowledge of food and water storage/safety and sanitation procedures.
What’s happening in Nepal is very serious for more reasons than demolished buildings. The entire infrastructure of the country is disrupted and will remain so for the foreseeable future. What does that look like? Water supplies are either stopped up or contaminated. Sewage systems are destroyed.The electric grid is severely compromised. Roadways are destroyed rendering many places inaccessible except on foot. Government services are incapacitated. And those are only the big ticket “top of list” items. It’s necessary to know how to purify water, properly store and prepare food with little to no electricity. Dispose of human waste so as to prevent spread of disease and further contamination. Responders and their teams must go into these situations fully equipped to attend to all of their own needs. Not knowing how to do this, creates an even greater crisis— the aid workers can’t effectively help anyone if they are ill from food and water contaminates or are adding to the unsanitary environs.
3. You need excellent coping and stress-management skills.
Disaster situations are by default high stress, emotionally charged environments. Filled to the brim with chaos and uncertainty. Exasperated by masses of fearful, bewildered and traumatized people- all of whom need immediate assistance- it’s easy to see how one’s “stressometer” can max out within hours of arrival. Information doesn’t flow smoothly, crucial details get lost in translation and things rarely (if ever) unfold according to plan. It’s vital to have good personal knowledge of and techiniques for functioning effectively in a pressure cooker working environment. Responders who must know what’s going on 24/7, get easily offended when not kept in the loop 100% of the time or who loose it after things change 30 seconds after a plan was fixed have a difficult time coping on the field.
4. You need crisis and trauma-counseling skills. You also need to be a great listener.
A big part of the job when working with disaster victims is crisis and trauma counseling. Helping people deal with various stages of grief and loss is something every responder needs to have a working knowledge of. Oftentimes, it’s 2 parts listening to 1 part validating and demonstrating compassion. You get to go home at the end of your deployment. These people? They have to learn to adjust to an abrupt and unanticipated new normal. Know what the stages of grief are, be patient and give people the time and space they need to share their stories- this is a vital step in their recovery process.
5. You need to know alternative means of communication.
Cell phones, land lines and the internet aren’t always available. To remedy that, having a HAM (Handheld Amateur Radio) radio operators license is valuable. While not every responder has this, it’s an incredibly useful skill to have when none of the phone networks are available. Especially in the first 1-6 weeks post disaster.
6. You need to speak more than one language.
In the aid community, English, French and more recently Arabic are the most coveted. Others of course, are always needed so, the more languages one can speak, the better. In your home country, being able to serve as an interpreter for responders from other countries is also an important skill.
7. You need technical skills. Media skills are especially valuable.
Having good grasp of technology in the world today is a given — in the aid world, things are no different. In addition to basic computer skills, knowing how to use a camera or take video to help document the work organizations and teams are doing is highly valued. The photos and videos are critical in showing supporters what’s actually happening on the field. Visual documentation is one of the key ways organizations demonstrate funds are being well spent. Keep in mind, there’s a code of ethics- tell the story but don’t objectify or re-victimize the people you are there to help. Protect their dignity, it’s probably one of the few things they have left.
8. You need basic survival skills and low expectations.
In areas where major destruction occurs, baths, showers, lodging with reliable internet, nice cold drinks and clean plates are extreme luxuries. You’ll need to be okay with the fact that bathing probably won’t happen till you are headed towards the airport. Toilet facilities will be a mess (if there even are any) and you’ll most likely be sleeping in a tent on hard, rocky ground with a regular parade of insects, chickens and dirt the entire time you’re on deployment. In short, it’s rough. It’s the most uncomfortable, dirty, undone kind of environment possible and you have to fall in love with it.
9. You need training and you need to join an organization.
Most organizations have their own training programs for their volunteers. Some are over a weekend, others require a week or more of dawn till dusk, extensive training on a variety of subjects. The very worst thing a person can do after a disaster is hop on an airplane as an untrained lone ranger. Don’t allow yourself to consider that as an option. Find an organization operating locally that matches your vision and values. Get involved with them, learn their protocol and operational systems, get the training and equipping you need to become a functional, contributing member of their team and THEN go where the crisis is under their direction.
10. You need to view this as an investment.
Crisis response and disaster relief is not for the faint of heart, nor is it well suited to the one off experience— it’s a long term commitment to acquiring knowledge and skill sets that leave a place and people group better off then when you arrived. This list is merely an orientation highlighting the most basic elements of aid work. There are infinite areas and specializations under the disaster response and humanitarian aid umbrellas.
Feature image by UK Department for International Development