Behind the scenes – The Red Cross

From taking aid to war-torn Yemen to easing the distress of loneliness in Britain, the Red Cross helps people in a crisis. BEVERLEY D’SILVA visited its HQ in Moorgate to meet some of those who help it to do so


The Red Cross emblem, a red cross on white, a sign of protection under the Geneva Conventions, is a symbol of safety and neutrality. Founded in 1870, the British Red Cross aims with International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to prevent human suffering. Its 3,500 staff manage campaigns, fundraise, spread its message and send and manage aid where it may be needed – but it could not work without its

32,500 trained volunteers, such as its emergency response volunteers or the staff at its charity shops. While images of disasters abroad may stay with us, the charity’s work at home is just as vital: it responds to an emergency in the UK every four hours, and helps around 500,000 people in crisis each year. In 2017, following the UK terror attacks, 1,000 Red Cross volunteers were deployed, working with the emergency services. After the Grenfell Tower fire in London, 600 volunteers gave first aid and support to those affected, managed a 24-hour support line, reconnected families and sorted through 200 tonnes of public donations. Here’s what happens behind the scenes…

First responder

Emergency response volunteer, Jean Bourlot, starts his day by getting behind the wheel of a British Red Cross emergency response vehicle. He’s one of a team of volunteers on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to support local authorities and emergency services. This morning Jean is just back from filling the petrol tank to ensure that if he gets a call, he and his four-by-four vehicle can respond immediately. In his five years as an ERV, Jean has been called out to help hospital staff get to work during snow storms, support families who’ve lost everything due to flooding or a fire in their home and was one of the first on the scene at the Grenfell Tower fire just hours after it happened.

The kindness of strangers

The British Red Cross runs on donations – £200 million last year. People who donate £5,000 or more are in a league which James Boyle, the head of philanthropy and events, is in charge of. “As part of our fundraising and to help to get our message across and inspire donations, we’ve held events such as a concert at St Paul’s Cathedral with a gala dinner and a talk at the House of Lords on our international work around health.” His team works with Red Cross ambassadors such as Ben Fogle, Victoria Pendleton and Jason Isaacs on campaigns. Today’s work focuses on aid to Yemen.

Sending help

David Foster, a response officer for global emergencies, points to a map showing disaster areas, such as those affected by floods, earthquake or war. David heads
up a logistics team with experts who get aid to those in need. In the aftermath of a big emergency, such as the food crisis in Zimbabwe or the earthquake in Syria, he and the team assess what needs to go where. Tents, cooking equipment, water-purifying tablets, insect repellent and toiletries are some of the goods needed, which arrive as gifts or are bought and stored at the main Red Cross warehouses – in Northamptonshire, Dubai, Harare and Panama – until needed. The British Red Cross is the UK’s largest independent provider of support to refugees and people seeking asylum.

Uncharted territories

We might think the world’s all mapped out with Google Maps on the scene. But many places on earth are literally ‘missing’ from the map. This can make it difficult to find
and help vulnerable people who need aid in the event of disasters, which displace or affect 200 million around the world each year. Missing Maps was born to plug the gap.
It’s a collaborative project by the Red Cross, with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Médecins Sans Frontières. Here, Alex Ballard of the Missing Maps team coordinates a ‘mapathon’, where volunteers bring their own laptops and help to map unmapped areas. They view large satellite images projected on to a screen to show the progress they’re making together.

Acts of kindness

Sue Stratton has been a volunteer with emergency response for three years. On the scene after the Grenfell Tower fire, she worked at the Red Cross rest centre set up for those affected; she sorted through donations, supported other services and helped people who’d lost everything to find what they needed. One resident lost everything in the fire, including her glasses. “She couldn’t see a thing without them, so two of our volunteers helped her to find a replacement pair. Small things like that can make a huge difference to someone in crisis.”

At the ready

Meeting The Queen at Buckingham Palace is all in a day’s work for Gillian Pattenden and Arun Krishnarayan, who are getting the volunteer support ambulance ready before heading to a lunch event at St James’ Palace. “Volunteering has given me the opportunity to see so many beautiful places.” enthuses Gillian, who has volunteered for 22 years at events including Royal garden parties and weddings and the Chelsea Flower Show as well as supporting NHS ambulance services in regular and emergency work. But fun aside, you need to be ready for anything, she says. “We could deal with anything from a sprained ankle to a potential head injury.” Arun, an event first- aid volunteer for more than two years, adds, “There’s something special about the Red Cross uniform. People trust it and like to chat about what we do.”

Welfare and well-being

“The work I do is about empowering, educating and promoting a healthy organisational culture,” says Rachel Miller, a psychosocial practitioner and mental health nurse. Rachel’s team, which includes psychologists and social workers, looks after front-line staff, whose work is often “trauma-exposed – including the Independent Living team, and those who support the victims of human trafficking. My work is not just about disaster, my work promotes well- being generally in the staff, so they feel they’re getting support.”

Deadly inspiration

Mehzebin Adam, the curator of objects at the British Red Cross Museum and Archives, handles a medicine bottle from a kit issued to Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments – civilians providing nursing care for the military during the world wars. One volunteer’s name jumps out – Agatha Christie. Years before she became a crime writer, she worked in the dispensary of a Red Cross hospital in Torquay – her volunteering record card, in the archive, shows she was there throughout the Great War. She said it was while working in the hospital apothecary that she learnt about poisons as well as medicines – knowledge she used in her murder stories.

By Royal Approval

Heritage manager Dr Alasdair Brooks stands before the Red Cross’s Royal Charter, which is signed by the monarch and gives an organisation particular rights. “The collections contain every Royal Charter granted to the society since the first one, in 1908. The most spectacular is undoubtedly the current document, from 1998, which is stored in a special presentation box, complete with the formal wax Royal seal of our patron Queen Elizabeth II,” he says. Hanging behind Dr Brooks is a Changi quilt. Made by women who were interned in Changi Prison, Singapore, by the Japanese in World War Two, the quilts were hand-embroidered with secret messages and hidden meanings.

Life skills

Last year, Red Cross courses helped nearly 320,000 people in the UK
to learn first aid, at more than 150 centres across the country. From pensioners and teachers to childcare workers and corporate health and safety, the Red Cross is the go-to provider. “We believe first aid is the most important lesson you can learn,” explainss Jeff Bryan, a British Red Cross trainer, who uses a dummy called ‘resuscitation Annie’ to teach techniques. The trainers teach the public the knowledge, confidence and willingness to intervene in three potentially life- threatening first-aid emergencies: helping someone who is heavily bleeding; helping someone who is unresponsive and bleeding; and helping a person who is unresponsive and not breathing.


First-aid trainer Mel Ward shows delegates how to give CPR chest compressions, using a ‘resuscitation Annie’. Mel has been teaching first aid for adults, children and babies for more than 18 years to the public. “If your baby or grandchild is choking, you need to know what to do,” she says. Helping people feel confident in their skills is part of her job. “If someone has a stroke, for example, fast action is critical. We try to make the training as realistic as possible, though in the case of how to stop severe bleeding once, it looked so real one of the delegates fainted!”

From the archives

Mehzebin Adam files objects in the archive, which holds 56,000 items related to the organisation’s life- saving work. It is one of the largest collections of items of any Red Cross national society in the world. In October last year, the archive’s collection was made available online to the public for the first time.

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