Deputy fire chief volunteered overseas
Brian Wilson was running a one-man real estate operation in London, Ontario when he first became involved in volunteer international disaster response. A firefighter by trade he was interested when the real estate board put out a call for volunteers by Humanity First to work on the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Wilson told the Canadian Club of Moose Jaw he was so eager to help, he skipped the one week training course. Two weeks in Haiti “stretched into five weeks.” The Humanity First (HF) Team arrived two weeks after the earthquake with teams from the U.S.A., U.K. and Canada. Canadians from Humanity First sent 75 volunteers supported by 300 people at home who sought medicines, food and tents. “Humanity First is one of few international disaster response teams that has no employees,” said the Moose Jaw Deputy Fire Chief. “We want to take as much of the donor money as possible to go to the end cause.” Wilson said the politics of international disaster response in Haiti frustrated him. “Every non-government organization has its pros and cons. Everyone does some good work. Every one has their frustrations, as well. “I saw some pretty well-known organizations that were very much centred to where the media seemed to be, as opposed to going to the people that might need assistance. I also understand where they are coming from. They have significant overhead but they also have to show the donors where the money is going. That’s a tough balance.” Representatives from various disaster relief groups met daily at a United Nations site to determine who was doing what, getting supplies and where. One of his jobs was to source stuff needed by the HF hospital. “At the UN meetings we got so frustrated with bureaucrats we stopped going. We missed out on information.” When they returned to Canada the team made a decision to be embedded in the UN meetings in future and “it worked a lot better” in two subsequent disasters. Over two months the HF hospital saw more than 23,000 patients with only three or four physicians, supported by nurses. “We were seeing upwards of 700 patients a day. It was nuts just keeping up.” The daily walk-in clinic had two block long lineups by 7 a.m. every morning. “We did a little bit of everything every day.” He acted as a pharmacist/blood pressure guy/re-bandaging/ logistics, truck driver, and camp cook. Wilson was frustrated by the bigger relief agencies. “Big players wanted the media to film them in their vests to drive donations from the public. The challenge was some of the smaller villages weren’t getting the help because the media wasn’t going there. “Humanity First’s vision was: let’s go to the smaller areas, the ones that aren’t getting help.” His team stayed in tents and slept on military cots while “Red Cross workers stayed in four-star hotels at $400 a night.” When he returned home, Wilson became leader of the HF disaster response team in Canada. The HF response to the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines was three persons. The team formed a partnership with the Canadian military Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) that worked really well. His morning in the UN room with 200 others allowed him to be a matchmaker and provide more effective assistance. The HF team received a $400,000 grant from a Canadian government agency to re-build 300 homes and two schools. HF response to the 2015 Nepal earthquake was different. Wilson co-ordinated a team of 12 UK doctors but the medical needs weren’t the same as in previous disasters. Food, water and shelter were needed most. The UN co-ordination meetings in Nepal were no longer on one site. He and others had to approach each Nepalese government agency on an individual basis, which entailed lots of cab rides around Katmandu.
Ron Walter can be reached at email@example.com