Arata Otake – Disaster Relief Volunteer Leader Training Programme

March 23-31, 2011

A lesson learned from the Great Kobe Earthquake and the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake was that if the volunteers are coordinated effectively, they can be more instrumental in helping those affected. The presence of volunteer leaders who can make appropriate decisions and coordinate Japanese and international volunteers are invaluable to relief effort operations.

Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV) has been running a “Disaster Relief Volunteer Leader Training Programme” since November, 2011. This programme aims to equip potential volunteer leaders with practical skills, which includes leadership, volunteer coordination, basic life saving, and safety checking skills that are required for emergency disaster relief operations. The programme goes for eight days in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where Peace Boat has been conducting disaster relief operations. more than 15,000 volunteers have participated in these operations since March 2011.

Participants in the 10th Disaster Volunteer Leader Training Programme

Fifteen participants including myself participated in the 10th dispatch of the Leader Training Programme. The age of the participants varied from people in their early twenties to those in the early forties, and about half were university students. From the self-introductions that were made at the orientation, it was clear that despite our different backgrounds, the common reason for participating in the Training Programme was that we all wanted to do something to support those affected by the devastating disaster, and to ensure we are better equipped for future disasters.

The first day concentrated on broadening our basic understanding of natural disasters, disaster relief mechanisms, volunteers, and leaders through lectures and discussions. It was particularly interesting to discuss how we defined these topics and the differences between our thoughts. It made us reevaluate the characteristics and values required for to be a good volunteer and leaders, which is a core theme of this programme.

Learning from my fellow participants was stimulating and inspirational.

On the second day, we had more lectures on practical topics such as injury and illness management, first aid training, and safety management. Then this was followed with an on-site safety inspection to one of the buildings partially damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. We also had a chance to practice first aid techniques using an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) on a dummy. I thought these practical training sessions were really useful because if I had only learned about these activities through lectures I am not sure that I would be confident in properly using an AED or performing first aid in emergency situations.

We were taught how to spot and avert potential risks.

On the evening of the second day, the training programme suddenly shifted from passive to active participation where we were required to take initiative in making our own decisions – just like what would happen in real emergency situations.

We were given the imaginary task that we were being dispatched to disaster-stricken areas in the early stage of relief operations. Our mission was to provide 150 hot meals by 4 p.m. of the following day to disaster victims. This meant we were required to load trucks, create a central kitchen and establish an outdoor base camp with tents for sleeping in Ishinomaki. We were given the required equipment and had a brief lecture about how to set up tents. The way in which we wanted to complete our mission was up to our discretion. It took a long time for our team to reach a decision because we initially lacked knowledge, initiative and confidence.

We set up a large tent as part of our mission to build a kitchen.

Leaders were assigned to coordinate each task and we began carrying out mission. Ultimately, we ran overtime beyond the 4 p.m. deadline, but we managed to provide to finish our mission of providing 150 hot meals. We were exhausted. In our feedback session, we reviewed and evaluated the performance of each leader. I was one of the leaders, and while there was positive feedback about my performance, the discussion made it clear to me that there was room for improvement. Exchanging our opinions was extremely valuable. For this type of work it was essential that each leader had a clear vision on how to coordinate participants to operate efficiently in a safe manner. It really made all of us think about the characteristics and abilities that makes someone a good leader during disaster relief efforts.

Preparing hot meals as part of the outdoor activities.

From the fifth to the seventh day of our programme, the participants were split into two groups to help them observe and understand the role of volunteer leaders in Peace Boat’s disaster relief operations. One group was engaged with the provision of fishery support and the other group with the provision of temporary housing supportThese are both central pillars to Peace Boat’s operations. By observing volunteer leaders coordinating hands-on relief operations, and attending the regular meetings of leaders and volunteers, we were able to gain an insight into challenges of being an effective leader and how it is possible to overcome challenges. The two groups had an exchange to discuss the different activities that we participated in, which was a great group presentation.

One of the most interesting and valuable parts of the training was a case study session. We discussed how we would act as a volunteer leader in certain situations during emergency relief operations. This session was particularly useful for me as I remember being in similar situations when I was a volunteer leader during relief efforts in March 2011, just two weeks after the disaster. At the time, I did not know what was expected from the leaders. I thought the case study scenarios could also be applied to help me improve in my daily work, which is to coordinate volunteers for Peace Boat.

One of the skills required for leaders is to be able to present information to an audience.

The programme ended with an in-depth discussion on the difference between being a leader in general, and being a leader of volunteers for disaster relief work. Somehow, at the end of the programme, it was more difficult for me to reach a conclusion than it was at the beginning of the week. Maybe this was because I had encountered so many different opinions and ideas through discussions with my fellow participants. The more opinions I exchanged, the more confused I felt, but this was beneficial as it forced me to think in-depth about what I had experienced and develop my own ideas.

I would say this training programme was bigger than simply teaching people how to be volunteer leaders during times of disaster. I felt that this instead was an opportunity to learn more about myself. It helped me develop my interpersonal, communication, and coordination skills. Furthermore, it the practical element built my life saving, safety inspection and injury/illness management skills, which will be useful in my daily life. It was an amazing experience in which people from a wide range of backgrounds came together to form a team, and share a vast range of things including opinions, experiences, values and skills. It really made me think of how I should continue to develop myself as an individual, as well as a leader of volunteers during times of disaster. It was truly a stimulating experience.

Despite the intensity of the training programme, our trainers made the experience fun and light-hearted.

For these reasons, I hope as many people as possible will be able to participate in this programme. The more people who join, the more people will be equipped with the skills required for disaster relief volunteer coordination, which will ultimately contribute to more effective relief work in the affected areas.

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