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Journalist in training for world emergency response role

West Briton community editor Carolyn Thomas is training to become a volunteer with the ShelterBox Response Team, ready to be deployed anywhere in the world when disaster strikes. The Truro-based journalist reports on her first training… in far-off, windswept Cornwall.

So what did you do on Saturday evening? Did you enjoy a cosy night in front of the TV, or dance the night away at a party?

I was busy struggling to put up a tent on the wilds of The Lizard, in Cornwall, with two complete strangers in the pouring rain, knowing that a force 10 gale was forecast.

With that task completed my team was told to walk a few miles along the pitch black coast path in search of a disorientated man called George who would give us a grid reference.

It was all part of a test to see whether I had what it takes to become a volunteer member of a ShelterBox Response Team. ShelterBox is a Cornwall-based charity which sends aid, primarily tents, around the world after a disaster has struck.

The Rotary-run organisation prides itself on sending trained volunteers to the stricken area to ensure the ShelterBoxes reach those made homeless in the quickest possible time.

ShelterBox’s aim at present is to train a further 100 volunteers so there are enough people ready to dispatch at any given moment.

My involvement stems from the fact my husband Huw is the publicity officer for the charity, and having been so impressed with how the charity operates, I felt I could help by reporting on what happens at the sharp end.

To do that, I want to be of use to the team, not a hindrance.

In the words of Joe Cannon, the team leader, to be a useful member of an SRT you have to be resourceful, be able to think on your feet, eat anything, sleep anywhere and carry out your bodily functions anywhere.

The two-day timetable had been kept deliberately vague so I was intrigued to know exactly what “overnight evolutions”; would entail.

We had been warned to bring equipment suitable for a night in a tent in Cornwall in February. Part of the test was to empty our rucksacks (or shopping bag in one instance) for everyone else to analyse what we had brought. I was missing a couple of essential items; matches and a sharp knife (my husband always packs those when we go camping). But on the whole I had taken the all-important change of clothing, sleeping bag and full set of waterproofs (some hadn’t).

We all watched with amazement as Joe, a former Navy survival expert, unpacked a wealth of emergency gear just from his day pack which included, he said most importantly, two means of boiling hot water and plenty of tea bags.

After a day in the classroom the excitement really began to mount when we were suddenly split into four teams, and told we had 15 minutes to pack our kit and check what we had in our ShelterBoxes; one per team. I was worried I might be seen as a weak link, especially as I had a filthy cold, but it turned out there was no chance to be a shirker.

As soon as we arrived at The Lizard we had minimal time to erect our ten-man tent before being sent on our first mission. We were given a map and compass, and had one hour to walk to three specific locations.

We had to analyse how many ShelterBox tents could be erected there in an emergency and what the road, sea or helicopter access was like.

Walking at what felt like 90mph between locations (I refused to run with my cold) my team made the best time (not that it was a race). One team cheated (or they would say – used their initiative) and hitched a ride.

The heavens opened as we walked, fully laden, back to the church we had reconnoitred earlier.

We plumped for what seemed like a fairly sheltered car park and battled to get our pair of two-man tents up in the rain. By this time, Team B had joined us while the other two teams opted for the graveyard. Just as we were about to enjoy a hot cup of tea, we were sent off in search of George.

What seemed like miles later we found him. George Armstrong is actually the operations manager of ShelterBox who put on a good impression of a disorientated walker. Helpfully he gave us that grid reference which was marked PH on the map.

Was it too good to be true? Would we turn up there only to find it had been hit by some disaster? What else was going to happen to us during the hours of darkness? Sorry, but I’m not going to give too much away in case there are future SRT trainees reading.

The next morning, after a wild and stormy night, it was with some astonishment and amusement that we returned to our original camp to find our big ShelterBox tents either flattened on the ground or pinned to a fence. We obviously hadn’t quite secured them properly. “We never have this problem in Java or Kashmir, just Helston,” quipped Mark Smith, a hardened SRT member.

After boil-in-the-bag beans and bacon for breakfast we retrieved our tents, and found ourselves back at the classroom for a morning of more informative lectures. It had been an incredibly fulfilling and eye-opening weekend.

I had learned a huge amount about travelling to disaster zones, how the SRTs work and had met some fascinating people. The passion and enthusiasm of those involved was extremely infectious.

The training doesn’t stop there though. Those who make it through will be invited for some further sessions before being sent out on deployment as a rookie with an experienced team.

I’ve no idea where I could be sent, if I’m deemed suitable, but I’m looking forward to see how I’ll cope being part of a life-saving organisation.

One thing is for sure, wherever I go, it will be a lot more challenging than spending a stormy night camping on The Lizard.