Being a manager of an emergency team

For almost 9 years, I headed different emergency response teams while I was based in Uganda (the Great Lakes emergency), Kosovo, Pakistan/Afghanistan and later out of Dubai. Back in 2006, I took a sabbatical and after that worked for three years in Italy, outside of the emergency response scene.

The Haiti operation is my first emergency since four years. Just before leaving Rome, on my way to the Dominican Republic, I wondered by myself, if I still had it in me. If the tools I built for myself over the years were not rusty. But already the first day on the ground in Santo Domingo, it was clear the past experience I was able to build up, did not fade. I felt -once again- as a fish in the water.

In our office, we manage about 80 people, most of them coming from different operations all over the globe. People were picked from other offices, all over the world. From North Korea to Ecuador, from Rome to Indonesia and Malawi. I think they must come from 50 odd different offices. Some are experienced staff, and for some, this was their first emergency response. Some are logisticians, others finance officers or procurement staff, others are administrative assistants, fleet managers, air operations specialist, counsellors, warehouse managers or nutritionists.

How, as a manager, do you make these people fold into one team? I often think about what makes a team work. And the role of a manager in a team. Off the top of my head, let me sum up some points I find crucial.

1. Give direction
Define the team goals from the beginning. It gives people a sense of direction, it helps turning the faces of all different units in the same way.

2. Care
As a manager, your staff is your main asset. Your staff will make or break an operation. Be sensitive to the individuals in your team. Debug conflicts right at the start, before they become major issues. Ensure your staff keeps healthy, care for their wellbeing. A fruitbasket a day sometimes makes all the difference. Mind their energy levels. Chase them out of the office when needed, so they don't burn out.

3. Give feedback
Tell your staff when things are not done well, knowing they do their best, and have the best intentions. Praise when praise is due. An occasional pad on the back does not cost anything.

4. Structure
Draw up the team organigram from the start. People need to know who they report to, and what unit they belong to. Put a person in charge of each unit. Ensure the reporting structure is respected, and assist the unit heads where needed.
Brief new staff as they arrive. Explain the team goals, the organigram, the way the office is run.

5. Smile
Everyone has a bad day once in a while. I for one, never hide it when I am in a pissy mood. But I also love to walk around my team and hand out a friendly word and a smile from time to time... Amazing how much difference it makes sometimes.

6. Enable
As a manager, you are an enabler. You have to give the people the tools they need. Be it the budget, connectivity, a decent office space, or equipment. Without their tools, the best team members will not be able to function.

7. Debug
After defining the initial team structures, the basic systems and procedures are put in place, and giving your team the tools it needs, one of the main tasks of a manager in emergency operations, is to be a debugger. Ensure people come to you with their issues, and help them on the spot. Don't let problems 'breed' or 'simmer'... Keep your door open.
Often people ask me what I do, as a manager. Apart from my task in linking the teams to the 'outside world', be it the government, the UN system or our HQ, my main day-to-day task is "debugging". I see myself as the guy who walks around with a toilet plunger -the stick with a large rubber suction tab- sticking it into the lavatories and going 'Zwonk-Zwonk', until the garbage is gone, and the water flows again. I am a professional toilet-declogger.

8. Involve
Teams working in emergencies tend to become very focused, which is good. Well-functioning units concentrate on their task at hand. All OK, but also ensure they maintain the overall focus and the context of the operation. Even after the first month in this emergency, I still have an all-team meeting once per day. It gets people from behind their desk for a few minutes while I can give some information on what is going on beyond our office, within the emergency. Everyone likes to feel part 'of the big machine', feel their work makes a difference. Certainly important for humanitarians!

9. Delegate
In a fast evolving emergency, it is impossible to micromanage. Ensure you have staff you can entrust with the task at hand. Empower the supervisors within their own team, and delegate the tasks. Pass through the supervisors rather than tasking people directly. Often one of my big challenges, by the way.

10. Spot check
It is impossible to check everything going on. But random spot checks on what's up, gives you as a manager a good idea what's going on. Read the signs. Sloppy expense reports might point to a sloppy finance officer. Delayed attendance sheets, might point to a sloppy HR officer...

And now I am thinking "Where did I sin against my own rules, today?" :-)

Picture courtesy Jonathan Thompson

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The unreality of an emergency

It is hard to imagine, but we put up our office next to this pool in a Santo Domingo hotel.

From the 'pingpong room', which the hotel converted into an open office space for about 80 people, we manage the transport of aid cargo for most relief agencies into Haiti.

With a 180 degree view of people sitting by the pool, sipping drinks, in one month, we coordinated the offloadeding of 90 cargo planes and a dozen sea vessels. We dispatched 514 trucks from Santo Domingo to Haiti, carrying a total of 1,658 tons of food aid (that is right, 1.6 million kgs) and some 10,000 m³ of other relief goods, from 46 different aid organizations.

As we also run the aid flights from the Dominican Republic into Haiti with four helicopters, two cargo and two passenger planes, we transported 1,650 passengers from 250 different organizations from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince.

The funny thing is that you can't see through the office windows from the outside... So yesterday we had this girl in bikini pacing to and fro in front of the window, talking on her mobile...

It was funny to hear the people in the office on the phone talking about truck dispatches, the offloading of containers, while this little lady was standing with her back against the window...

Ah.. sometimes pleasures can be found in simple things in life...

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Aid, logistics, helicopters and Haiti

Last week, we flew with a team from the government to Jimani, Barahona and Cabo Rojo to check out the condition at the main border crossing between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and two airstrips - one of which we already use as a contingency base. In view of the amount of aid (food, shelter, sanitation equipment, medicins,...) which is moved into Haiti, the logistics aspect, one of the areas we are responsible for, is critical. While things are very busy - to say the least - at this moment, in my view, the peak of the movement of goods still has to come, at the time we are shifting from emergency response to basic reconstruction.

In many aspects, for the Haiti operation, the logistics of the aid operation will determine the success of the relief efforts.

For last Sunday's assessment mission, we used one of the MI-171 helicopters we have deployed in the Haiti operations. We have four helicopters, two cargo planes and two passengers planes which ferry mostly people, but also urgent or fragile cargo between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

On the way back from the mission, the pilot followed the Southern coast of the Dominican Republic, from the Haiti border up to halfway to Santo Domingo. The views were astonishing, and in sharp contrast with the devastation in Haiti.

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Assessment trip to the Haiti border area

Jimani border

Two weeks ago, we got news of two small camps forming just across the border, in Haiti. These were mostly people treated at a hospital, and their relatives, both of which were in dire need of aid.

Food aid is not just a question of "dropping food rations", but also ensuring the rations are adequate, appropriate, and can be distributed so those who are in need are actually served. A minimum provision of basic security has to be in place to ensure safety of the beneficiaries, and of those handing out the food aid.

So before we could move food aid in, we needed to see for ourselves and make the arrangements how we could store the food near the camps, who would distribute it, and what rations were needed, for how long and with what frequency they needed to be replenished.

We got the call for help on a Wednesday evening. On the Thursday we flew with a helicopter to Jimani, and drove over the border to discuss the plan of action with the people managing the camps.

Luckily, the type of rations they needed were available in our warehouse in Jimani, and on the Friday, the first food distribution was done.

Here is a short video showing the helicopter take off from a grass field behind the local military outpost.

Since then, we have regular food distributions in those camps. We transport the aid to Jimani, and the distribution is done by Worldvision, one of our implementing partners.

During most of the trips, I twitter pictures live via Shot from the Hip.

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Haiti emergency: Another day in the fast lane

I woke at 3 am today.
An ideal quiet time to connect to the wireless network here in the hotel in Santo Domingo, to catch up with my backlog of Email, and to catch the first Emails coming in from our HQ in Rome.
In the Emails, there is a series of exchanges on call-forwards of staff on standby for deployment. Unblocked the deployment of two staff due to arrive asap to help us set up the communications here in the office, and updated the list of another four staff the buro is sending in. Wrote some quick terms of reference for them and just worked my way through some outstanding issues.

8 am: Quick shower and down to the office which is installed in two conference rooms downstairs in the hotel. The usual suspects are already present: the people from aviation are already up and running. The ICT guys start their usual shift at 7:30. The finance and HR people are already at their desks.
Breakfast with some of the staff and we are ready for another day.

8:30: the room is full and buzzing. We are squeezed with about 40 people in one small conference room. Staff come in and out, talking on their mobiles, working on their laptops. All tables we work on are make shift conference room tables filled with files, wires, computers, and stuff. There is laughter and a buzz of activity all around.

9:30: A quick brief with Brenda who just arrived and who will assist our project manager in finding a permanent location for our office.

10:00: Time for a short meeting with our security officer, trying to make some sense of the new security arrangements at the border with Haiti.
We agree it is time to beef up the security arrangements for our border operations.

10:30: Georges, our procurement officer, who normally works in Afghanistan, rings the alarm bell that the food shipment for our base camp in Port-au-Prince is not ready for the afternoon flight.

11:00 meeting with the heads of finance, supplies and logistics of our supplier for the base camp food for Haiti. Agreed on the line of credit and the way we will work to call forward the food next week. We stress the importance of the shipment we had scheduled for today, as it has to be on the plane taking off at 14:00. We have now two and a half hours left. The supplier leaves with Cecelia, our assistant procurement officer (normally based in Ecuador), to the wholesale food shop, to buy one and a half ton of food for our staff in Haiti, in one hour.
Georges winks at me "we will make it, but it will be 'just in time'"

11:45 Meeting on the ICT requirements for the pending move to the new temporary location of our office, with Dane, who coordinates the ICT deployment in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Another wink: "All will be ok!"

12:00 Catching up with my emails again. More debugging. Some releases in our ERP system. Saying hi to more new staff who arrived last night.

13:00 Anisa, who normally works in Dubai, is our office manager (or 'mama' as we call her) and the admin crew, have arranged someone to bring in food every day. A quick bite, sitting outside the office. I walk around for a bit of fresh air. We have a dozen of our staff sitting around in the parking lot, eating their lunch.

13:30 Agreed how we will pay travel advances for our staff passing through Santo Domingo, inbound to Haiti. Gwyn, our travel guru from Rome works overtime. Ximena and Beverley, our HR team, come to tell me, proud as a peacock, we just processed our local payroll. Hurray...! A first!

14:00 Mario, who normally works in Indonesia, Tony (from HQ) and Alex (from Panama) form our finance crew. They have me sign off on our monthly bank reconciliation. Once again a first, as before the earthquake, the office here did not have a bank account, had no access to the ERP system... We are processing all transactions online now, set up in less than one week. Another first.... HURRAY! The balance shows our office processed about US$700,000 in payments, in the past three weeks.

14:30: George tells me the food for the basecamp made it in time for today's flight. Cecilia bought 1.5 tons of food in less than two hours. She reports even the managers of the wholesale store ran around the huge warehouse with shopping carts for her. Good going guys!

15:30 Time for a nap. Unicef calls twice. A VIP is flying using one of our planes in two days. Final arrangements on the schedules.

16:25: a quick shower. Walking out of my room, I cross Henrik, my head of operations. There is a problem in Fond Parisien, just across the border.

16:30 I do my daily briefing with the newly arrived staff. Something I do religiously so newcomers know what we do, how we organise ourselves, and understand what a pain the boss is over here (me!). But I get sidetracked for a meeting with the hotel manager who wants to speak with us.
We desperately need to firm up the agreement we have with them. Jane, our "Head of Support Services With A Friendly Smile" from Panama, Michael (from our Dubai office) and Luigi stress: Yes, we want 70 rooms blocked, with a block allocation of 100 rooms, and priority booking for 150 rooms. Yes, we want to have the locks replaced on the doors of our new offices, and floodlights on the back of the office is a must, thankyouverymuch.

17:45: for the first time, I miss the 17:00 all staff meeting. We needed to firm up the agreement with the hotel, otherwise we would never be able to cater for the 50 local staff we are recruiting in the next two weeks. So instead of walking through our two office-slash-conference rooms shouting "5 o'clock - meeting!!!", I now shout "Quarter to Six, meeting!" which causes a collective "Booh, you are late" tease from the staff. We use these daily briefs to streamline any issues that need to be discussed, announcements to be made, and short briefs. It is also the ideal moment to introduce all new staff who arrived in the past 24 hours.

18:05 We are ending the brief, and Henrik gives me a sign. I can see there in his eyes there is trouble. "The situation we discussed this morning might run out of hand, we need to act now" is his short message. I call the head of one of our implementing partners in Port-au-Prince via his satellite telephone and we discuss briefly to the head of IOM at the border. It is clear, we need to move fast.

18:30 We call the head of UNICEF and cochair of the nutrition cluster in the Dominican Republic. She confirms the dire need of food in two small camps. I call Carlos in Haiti to clear the upcoming distribution. He gives us the go-ahead.

18:45 Jose (from Rome) and Sam (from our Sudan office) our newly arrived head of aviation confirm I can have a helicopter for tomorrow, take off at 9:30 to fly to the border, to meet with our programme staff there. We assemble a team of 6, file our security clearances online, and fill in a local travel authorization which Gwyn processes.

19:15: We get confirmation for the helicopter. All set. Luigi goes around and gets the names and UNLP numbers of the staff who will fly with us, so we can file a flight manifest.

19:30: a session of signing local purchase orders and finance papers, catching up with email.

20:00 the head of our implementing partner in Haiti calls me back. His team will drive from Port-au-Prince tomorrow to meet us in Jimani. We prepare the food logistics.

20:15 for two weeks in a row, I have been cross with the admin staff, normally working in our Panama office, as they are always staying up to 11 pm in the office. They can not keep that rythm, so I am happy to see them packing up their laptops. I hope they won't cheat and go to their rooms to work!

21:00 More emails, signing papers. WINGS releases. A debrief with a PI person coming back from Haiti.

22:00 I remember Tine, my wife, asked me to book a flight for her to Rome. We were supposed to meet there, but I won't be there, so she will stay in my apartment. Last financial releases, cleaning up of my emails.

23:00 I am happy to see my bitching on the staff to leave earlier worked... They all left before 11 PM.. Maybe there is some authority left in me, hahaha... I call the front desk and ask them to lock up the office. As I walk to the reception, one more staff walks to the office "Sorry boss, I have one more email I forgot to send".. Darned.

24:00 End of the day. Maybe 3 am is not a good idea for tomorrow morning. Good night everyone!

00:15: Darned my authority has failed on me. In my last Email replication of the day, I get more mails from our staff here in Santo Domingo. They are still working. They cheated... They left the office, but are working from their rooms.

I will call it a day. And you know what my last thoughts for the day are? I am happy I have a comfortable bed, in a room. Not so for the hundreds of staff we have in Haiti. I feel lucky for me, sad for them. And hope we made a difference for them today. And for the two million beneficiaries we are serving there... To all of you in Haiti... Good night, our thoughts are with you!

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