During the recent devastating earthquakes in Nepal, the country's only international airport in Kathmandu became the focal point of relief activity and the main entry point of vital foreign aid.
But as traffic intensified, its runway buckled under the pressure of incoming military aircrafts and the airport was forced to close its gates to large aeroplanes, significantly hampering rescue operations and aid distribution.
Kathmandu's inability to deliver at this crucial time served as a reminder that airports are the most important trans-shipment centres in the relief logistics chain.
Since 2009, a partnership between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Germany's Deutsche Post DHL has been working to prepare airports worldwide to effectively handle mass-scale natural disasters or outbreaks of violence.
A year after DHL provided support to the countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that impacted much of Southeast Asia, India and Somalia, the Aid & Relief department reached out to the UN for a formal partnership. The Get Airports Ready for Disaster (GARD) programme was formed as a means to deliver tailored contingency plans to airports around the world, with a particular focus on high risk areas.
Now in its seventh year, GARD has so far reached 13 countries, conducted expert assessments of 29 airports and delivered training to more than 500 key members of airport staff throughout Asia, the Arab States, Europe and Latin America.
The operation is coordinated by UNDP, who liases with national and local airport authorities worldwide. Boasting "the largest portfolio in disaster risk reduction", over the past ten years the network has supported countries with nearly $2bn in investment, according to Jo Scheuer, director of climate change and disaster risk reduction in the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at UNDP. An additional $500,000 has been spent by the German government over the last two years in supporting DHL's training delivery, which is offered to airports for free.
Prevention rather than reaction
"The airport can either be a bottleneck, or it can be a medium of fast and steady support, says Scheuer. "And what airport authorities need to understand is that they have a critical role. It is not something they might do every day, or every year, but when the moment hits, they need to be ready."
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DHL employs a team of highly trained experts with extensive experience in disaster management and risk prevention. After years of handling the aftermath of disasters, they thought "rather than being reactive, why not try and be proactive," explains Kim Melville, senior director of global airside and standards at DHL Express Global Head Office. Melville oversees a team of DHL trainers who visit airports worldwide, draw up assessments and teach airport employees a set of short-term, realistic disaster management solutions.
"The aim of GARD is to entrust upon airport managers, and those engaged in disaster movement in the country, on the importance of their airport after a disaster and how much extra traffic they would have," Melville says.
"That's part of the first stage of our course, when we just imprint on them that this is the key focus of aid into their country and if it starts falling downhill, it really impacts their nation and it becomes a very public event."
The main struggle airports face in times of crisis is the sudden and vast increase in aircraft, cargo volumes and personnel, all demanding a high level of logistical operations both within the airport and in relation to the national military and other rescue services.
"Whilst day to day, airports cope well with their traffic, after a disaster, they struggle to cope with the amount of cargo that comes in, and it starts to backlog and create problems for them," he says.
Customised training: the assessment process
Melville and his team of trainers are responsible for the ground-handling activity of the DHL air fleet. The course they designed is an intensive three to five-day training programme, depending on the size of each airport. Each workshop aims to gather between 25 and 30 participants, all senior airport staff, as well as disaster management officials, the country's Red Cross, military and security personnel.
"Finding the right calibre person is important," Melville says. "We need both top managers and people from the authorities who are influential enough to be able to implement decisions and make it happen."
The first stage of the course relies on theory and addresses the airport's individual layout, size, capacity and level of development. "Then we go out and we actually walk the airport, we do an assessment of the facilities, the buildings, the runways, and we find out what is the capability of that airport."
When on the ground, Melville's team considers "how we can use the parking areas more efficiently, what equipment we have, and do we have the man-power to provide help? If not, where are we going to get these from? We try to establish the links, the contacts so that when there is a disaster, we don't hunt for the information."
A question Melville and his team ask both themselves and the management is "can we do more?" The answer provides the basis for a capacity report, a set of guidelines and instructions entrusted upon the airport in case of a national disaster.
"There is a standard approach in the initial training and you have to look at capacities and in particular at risks that exists in that country," Scheuer says." The training is an intervention to give them a time of a few days to step back, look at what they've got, identify the risks and possibilities, introduce the standard procedures and of course to be followed up by the local authorities."
"What we have also seen is that it cannot be a one-off intervention. We are embedding this training in the longer term to support the government in the overall capacity in dealing with disaster events."
Such was the case with Beirut and Lebanon, who, four months following their GARD training, decided to implement the new directives into their national emergency response programme.
A piece of the puzzle: understanding what's at stake
An integral part of the training is making clear what is really at stake. As Scheuer points out, the first few days of a crisis is about bringing in life-changing solutions. "But it is also immediately about bringing in the support, the materials to help people rebuild their lives."
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In his view, airports should see themselves as an integral piece of the puzzle in disaster response: "My advice for airport authorities would be to understand that disasters are your concern, they are an opportunity and you are a critical piece in ensuring that life is saved and that support is provided to people so that they can rebuild their lives as soon as possible," he says.
Although the course is mainly technical and aimed at implementing low-cost logistical solutions, one module explores any previous experience the staff has in emergency situations. "We try to make it clear to them that they are going to have refugees there, they are going to have injured people," Melville says. "That sort of reinforces and brings home to them that we are dealing with people's lives and the realities of misery."
"We try and teach them basically that a disaster might strike the week after we leave, so they need to be prepared immediately for that kind of situation."
At present, UNDP and DHL are in discussions to expand and continue their partnership. GARD is currently undergoing an evaluation of its activities and a final decision is expected in July or August of this year. Meanwhile, planning is underway for training to take place in India, Jamaica and Nicaragua towards the end of 2015.
"Here you have a wonderful partnership of a logistic company, of the reach and reputation of DHL, and the German government supporting us, "Scheuer says. "We see a great importance and need to continue in a strategic way and we are also extremely appreciative of the partnership and the support from the chairman program."