Warehouse? What warehouse?
In times of disaster, timely distribution of aid saves lives. Often, local airports handling relief supplies are inundated and unable to cope. True to their name the Disaster Response Teams are always on standby and ready to help. The Group's mobile logistics experts can deploy to create a warehouse anywhere, anytime.
The DRT team, managed by Gilberto Castro, are quickly on hand to inventory, sort and repack supplies for onward distribution to those in need.
The contrast is striking. In the Group's state-of-the-art warehousing world, everything is fit for purpose - buildings and processes, technology and equipment. Switch to a Disaster Response Team (DRT) scenario, and things look very different. "Sometimes there isn't even a warehouse," says Gilberto Castro, Panama Operation District Manager, DHL Express and DHL Disaster Response Team Manager for the Americas.
Depending on where the team deploys, they might find themselves storing goods in an aircraft hangar, on a section of roof, in a tent or some office space, or out on the tarmac. Everything is makeshift and temporary - just as it was when Castro's team deployed to La Aurora International Airport after the Guatemala earthquake in November 2012.
But despite the adverse working conditions, what the DRT volunteers have in abundance is expertise - in cargo handling, warehouse management and inventory control, customs clearance, communications, safety and security. "And they are trained in areas like team building and dynamics, non-verbal communication, basic first aid, military awareness, and interaction with government representatives and NGOs," says Castro.
Ready for anything
Panama Operation District Manager at DHL Express is also the DHL Disaster Response Team Manager for the Americas. Heading a team of 482 volunteers and supported by eight key GoHelp managers from across the region, he has led DRT deployments in Peru and Panama (2009), Chile, Guatemala and Haiti (2010), El Salvador (2011), and Guatemala (2012).
When news of disaster in the Americas comes in, Castro picks up the phone.
He calls the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), the UN Development Programme, DHL country management and the GoHelp managers in Bonn. "We assess the situation, and hear how the UN plans to respond," says Castro. "We try to get a handle on the resources they have on site, and how things might develop over the coming days."
With the go-ahead to deploy, the DRT volunteers take the basics they need to start right away: working clothes, communications equipment, pallet trolleys, office supplies, and packing materials like boxes, heavy-duty tape, and wrapping film. Bigger items such as forklifts are supplied locally by DHL.
What they find on arrival at the airport can range from a more-or-less conventional storage arrangement with some semblance of order, to plane-loads of aid strewn across the tarmac and left exposed to the elements and potential theft.
Setting up shop
The warehouse game, teaching future DRT members
It takes just 90 minutes to play. The imaginary location? The island of Hispanola. In the educational game used to train team members, the Dominican Republic - a conference room - is receiving aid flights for onward shipment to earthquake-shattered Haiti - a different room down the hall. Using radios, flashing lights, wailing sirens and the sound of an aircraft arriving, the game is played in a simulated airport setting. Teams are tasked with designing temporary warehouses on paper, setting out storage zones for different supplies. Next they sort incoming pallets of water (styrofoam chips), blankets (rawlplugs), food and non-food items (multi-colored blocks). The challenge is to inventory everything, store it in a way that is easy to retrieve, and then get it through customs for export to Haiti. The teams receive a point for each pallet that makes it across the border.
"We just start trying to get things organized," says Castro. "We don't just turn up saying 'move over guys, we're in charge'. We have to get a feel for what's going on. Build relationships and trust."
Working alongside local airport and disaster management staff, the DRT gets to know them and what they need. How many flights are expected and when? What are they carrying? Where will it go?
"We see what they're lacking and offer either to provide it or find it. Forklifts, pallets, whatever they need," Castro explains. "If DHL doesn't have it, we hire it from someone who does."
By the third day they are working as one big team. And by the fourth or fifth, the DRT volunteers have gradually taken over the helm in a guiding and coaching role.
"Be it equipment or knowledge and expertise, by showing you have what it takes, you're seen as being in charge," says Castro. "People look to you for guidance and help."
Finding the balance is key. The team has to deal with government and military officials, and keep a watchful eye on the stock. "With so much going on," says Castro, "people can get impatient. They try to bypass agreed processes and priorities for stock control. We can't impose rules or tell people what to do, so we stay calm, work with people, talk to them, and try to keep things under control."
Although the work is essentially the same - load reception, sorting, packing, cargo palletization, and quality control - it is worlds away from the warehouse environment back at DHL. "Forget perfect organization, productive processes, picking and putting," says Castro. "Apart from forklifts and pallet trolleys, the best tools we have are our hands and our heads."In Guatemala, the team made up 84 pallets comprising 17,000 kilos of rice, 6,000 kilos of beans, and two full pallets of medicines, 23,800 liters of soya oil, 2,500 kilos of sugar and 7,000 cans of tuna. They also sorted and packed 900 small bundle bags known as 'speedballs' with rations to feed a family of five for a week - two liters of oil, five kilos of rice, two kilos of beans, a kilo of sugar and two cans of tuna - and all by hand.
After two to three weeks, aid flights slow down, the deployment ends, and the team heads for home. "We hand over knowing that we have demonstrated and passed on warehousing skills that will help local staff see through the current crisis and any that occur later on," Castro says.
Leaving Guatemala, the team looked back on a job well done. They had deployed in less than 24 hours, and had received, inventoried and repacked no less than 70 tons of aid. It seems warehousing is as much about people as about buildings.
Author: Carol Stocks