Basingstoke, Rushmoor and Mid-Hart

British Red Cross Emergency Reserve Volunteering pilot boosted by successful “Operation Solent” exercise

British Red Cross Emergency Reserve Volunteering pilot boosted by successful “Operation Solent” exercise

Surviving the Nepal earthquake, seeing friends suffer after flooding and wanting to give back to society after a happy and successful life are some of the reasons Hampshire people give for signing up to an exciting new volunteering pilot run by the British Red Cross.

These were the stories of some of the 30 volunteers attending an emergency exercise at the Royal Victoria Country Park in Netley at the weekend, to test out how they would work with regular Red Cross volunteers in the event of a major emergency.

Alerted by SMS a few days in advance, the volunteers were part of a group of 200 who have signed up county-wide to the popular Red Cross recruitment campaign. Emergency Reserve Volunteers will help their local community by doing practical tasks such as filling sandbags during large incidents, but aren’t required to commit to regular volunteering. No specialist skills are required, there’s no compulsion to respond and it’s anticipated volunteers may only be called upon once or twice a year.

The pilot is intended to harness the outpouring of public support during times of crisis in a structured and co-ordinated manner, giving caring people a practical way to assist, and building community resilience.

During Saturday’s exercise, named Operation Solent, the group were tasked with preparing food boxes for residents made homeless because of flooding, and with a “clean-up operation” of areas covered in debris after the flood. These are tasks Emergency Reserve Volunteers may do in a real emergency, along with things like filling sandbags, preparing a rest centre, or moving furniture upstairs in a house before or during a flood. The food boxes were later distributed to families in need by Andover Foodbank.

Taran Vernon, 44, from Farnham, recently moved back to the area after seven years in Dubai, with her family. The mother-of-two is lucky to be alive after experiencing a disaster first hand when the Nepal earthquake struck as she took part in a charity hike at Everest. “We were 500 metres from base camp, on an exposed bit of mountain and the earthquake started,” she says, “The ground was shaking for 45 seconds. You could actually see the bit of mountain right in front of us shaking – left, right, left, right. We heard a rumble to our left as an avalanche of rubble came through. It’s something I’ll never forget. We were very lucky because you just couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. We were supposed to be at base camp, where lots of the casualties occurred, but we were one day behind, because of bad weather, so we were so lucky. We were offered helicopters to get out but we were all ok so we walked back. We had to avoid major cracks in the path and unstable ground. We walked back through villages with people mourning their family members. We walked through Namche Bazaar, which had been buzzing with music and activity two days before when we were there to acclimatise. Now it was just rubble. It was terrible seeing families whose homes had gone, just sitting there!”

As Taran and her group left Nepal they donated all their belongings, from rucksacks to clothing, to the people affected and at this stage international aid was also starting to come in. Since then she has done more fundraising for Nepal and says that her experiences there definitely influenced her decision to apply to be an Emergency Reserve Volunteer with the Red Cross in the UK. “That’s why I connected with this so much,” she explains, “It’s something that definitely hit a nerve. It’s been great today. Very inspiring and I would like to be more involved in some way and perhaps join a deployment team overseas one day.”

Jemma Wyatt, from Winchester, signed up because a friend’s house had been flooded two years ago in Winchester. “She’d only just bought her house and it was awful,” says Jemma. “It just spoke to me really.”

Babs Biddle (65), a retired hairdresser, and her husband George (77), a retired PE teacher, are from Southampton and also volunteer for a local organisation supporting homeless people. Babs says: “We’ve been very lucky with our lives and we want to give back to other people. We made a good living, paid the mortgage and we’re both in good health. We’ve really enjoyed today. It’s a great crowd. Everyone’s very helpful. I’m sure if we do have to turn out in a real emergency we will just get on with it!”

Simon Lewis, head of crisis response for the British Red Cross, says: “Saturday’s exercise was a great success. Despite threatening rain, 30 volunteers attended and were tasked as if in a genuine flooding emergency. The volunteers worked really well as teams on the two tasks – sorting a range of donated goods into food parcels for families who would have been cut off, and clearing debris from a public beach area. The exercise also tested the SMS text alert system which deployed them to the scene. This whole project is really exciting and will allow us to boost our fabulous regular volunteers with a larger support workforce in a big emergency.”

The Red Cross is still looking for more Emergency Reserve Volunteers in Hampshire. To find out more visit redcross.org.uk/reserves or email [email protected]