Every second counts: How we get supplies to emergencies fast

May 11, 2016
Written by Martin Dalton
Photo by Kieran McConville

When an earthquake or typhoon rips a country apart, we race to send vital help. Simple things like blankets, buckets, and tarpaulins can save lives — but they must arrive quickly. Martin Dalton runs our supply chain support unit. He explains how clever planning helps us send aid fast.

Sending aid during an emergency is a big challenge. Runways could be destroyed, borders shut, or whole areas cut off by floods and landslides. The people you need to get the goods through — from airport staff to truck drivers — might be injured or frantically searching for loved ones. So we do all we can to speed things up.

The 1994 Great Lakes crisis in Rwanda, Burundi, and other nearby countries, showed that aid organizations such as ours were not as prepared as we could be.

Since then, we have always kept goods in stock and ready to go at a moment’s notice — although how we buy and store them has evolved over the years.

Concern logistician, Graham Woodcock, supervises the transfer of emergency relief supplies

Concern logistician Graham Woodcock supervises the transfer of emergency relief supplies at the Kathmandu airport in Nepal. Photo: Kieran McConville

Going Dutch

At first, supplies were kept in leased warehouses in Rotterdam, Holland. This made sense because after a global emergency, charter flights packed full of aid would head to the scene from airports around Europe.

But new regulations and rises in flight and storage costs soon made this option more expensive. What’s more, the stock we held was almost all made in Asia. Was it really efficient to ship all these goods to Europe?

Sharing gives us warehouses around the world

In 2009, we became a partner in the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot initiative.

This means we can keep goods at warehouses in six places hand-picked for good access to emergencies worldwide — Italy, Ghana, Malaysia, Panama, the United Arab Emirates, and the Canary Islands. Most of our stock is in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Map of Concern's warehouse locations across the world

We can also borrow from and share aid with other members of the initiative, including UN agencies and other charities.

The goods we hold in Dubai right now can get vital help to about 10,000 people. The whole lot should fit into one standard charter flight.

What are we holding in Dubai?

Graphic of the stocks Concern keeps on hand

Plus: 2,000 construction ropes, 4,000 sleeping mats, 4,000 fleece blankets.

Local suppliers could be the answer

Even with a network of warehouses around the world, it might be quicker and cheaper to buy goods closer to the scene of emergency. Every crisis is different, so in each case, our experts make a quick decision on what’s best.

The items we send should fit what’s needed on the ground. Thin clothes or blankets won’t be much good in freezing weather, for example. We will only send supplies that are needed, and what we send meets a range of international standards.

A woman collects blankets, a tarpaulin, and other necessities

A woman collects blankets, a tarpaulin, and other necessities at a Concern in Dolakha district, Nepal. Many houses in the area were damaged in the April 25th, 2015, earthquake, but then subsequently destroyed in the tremor of May 12th.

In any case, stock from our warehouses will only be enough to kick-start our work. We’ll need to quickly buy more or send on goods provided by our partners. So we work hard to build strong links with suppliers before disasters happen, meaning we can buy the right goods fast. We ensure we know who can sell us what, and where those goods will be sent from. Plus, a good relationship might mean a slightly better price, and that means money left over to spend helping people in need.

Careful planning and years of experience mean next time an emergency strikes, Concern will be ready to go.

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