Coping with Disaster

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 09-11-1979

Christopher Long looks in at the centre geared for


By Christopher Long

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Do you ever wonder what would happen if the Thames burst its banks and flooded Chelsea or if a plane crashed into World's End?

Disaster, presumably. But it's fairly certain that among the first on the scene, along with the police, ambulances, firemen and others, would be about 30 trained members of the Red Cross, along with an army of Red Cross volunteers, equipped to cope with whatever they found.

Fortunately, such things have not happened for a long time, but if and when they do it's somehow comforting that Chelsea has its own Red Cross Centre in Old Church Street, with staff capable of dealing with everything from setting up first aid posts, basic nursing, looking after the elderly and children, and coping with the many human and welfare problems that would crop up.

And overseeing all this, on a local basis, would be a Chelsea woman, Miss Patricia Wilson, whom I visited recently at the Chelsea headquarters.

Ever since I saw her standing cool, calm and collected in her uniform on the parade ground of Kensington Barracks this time last year (while emergency arrangements were being made for the arrival of 346 Vietnamese refugees three days later) Miss Wilson struck me as being the sort of person I would like to have around in a crisis. And not only her, because she reckons to have a highly efficient and hard-working team of assistants and volunteers among the three detachments that make up the borough's Red Cross team.

Miss Wilson was already very familiar with Chelsea when she took over her present post two years ago. Brought up in Chelsea, she has lived here all her life except for the last few years of the war when she was posted away from Chelsea as a Royal Navy VAD (Volunteer Aid Detachment).

After the war she returned to civilian life, eventually settling in Swan Court and working as a company secretary until she gave it up in 1977 to take over the running of the Old Church Street centre.

"My first job was to sort the place out," she said, sitting behind a simple desk in a somewhat spartan office. "We had to put the place into a decent state suitable for an important centre with three detachments and the activities that go on here. Since then it's been a question of building up the various parts of the organisation – the medical loans department in particular."

Over a cup of excellent coffee, brought to us by her assistant, Miss Carter, Patricia Wilson explained that the medical loan department was an important aspect of Red Cross work. "We have practically everything you can think of in our stores that people might need.

"Wheel-chairs and crutches are the most obvious things, but really we have a pretty large selection – everything that can be sterilised."

The Red Cross make these available to people according to their needs, charging a deposit when things are borrowed, which is returned when the equipment itself is returned.

"It serves a very important need," said Miss Wilson. "So far I've only lost one thing – a wheel-chair that went to Egypt!"

But there are many other aspects to the work. "Tracings, for example," she said. "We are often called on to help trace members of families who have become separated and lost track of each other."

"We're still seeing the consequences of the last war, believe it or not, and we can expect to be asked by Red Cross headquarters to track down someone last heard of at such-and-such an address in Kensington or Chelsea as often as once or twice a month.

"For example, we had a job the other day to find the parents of a girl in Hungary. She can't leave Hungary and her father would be detained if he were to go there to see his daughter.

"Some of the cases are very sad – people separated years ago and who are often very frightened. In fact it's surprising how often they just don't want to know."

To try to reduce this fear, the Red Cross make one rule. Case workers don't visit people in uniform – otherwise they're liable to be mistaken for police officers.

One very important duty, where VADs do wear their uniforms however, is the invaluable 'escort' service that trained Red Cross personnel are often called upon to do.

As pressures on hospital services and nurses become ever tighter, VADs are often asked at short notice to escort patients in ambulances when no nurses are available. With their knowledge of nursing and their experience of what to do in a crisis, Red Cross VADs make excellent escorts for patients travelling to and from hospital or travelling long distances for special treatment in other parts of the country.

All this is local work, centred largely on St Stephen's and other hospitals in the borough. Financing the work is a constant problem, particularly as the massive international Red Cross organisation, working throughout the world's trouble-spots, looks to local branches and detachments for a large part of its own funds.

As an independent, non-political and neutral organisation, the Red Cross runs projects all over the world to deal with the victims of war, deprivation, famine, flood and suffering. A proportion of all the money raised in Chelsea, for example, goes to the London branch headquarters and then to Switzerland. And a major source of funds is from Red Cross Hospital Services and the shop in Old Church Street.

The invaluable work done by volunteers in local hospitals is well known. As well as raising funds, the shops, mobile trolley services and libraries provide an essential service to patients and staff.

The shop in Old Church Street, however, may be less well known. Situated in part of the purpose-built centre, it is a source of good quality second-hand clothes for many Chelsea people, with bargains galore.

"We're always in need of clothes for sale," says Miss Wilson, who has two assistants to sort through the stuff as it arrives and run the shop itself. "We have an excellent relationship with the Chelsea Centre and we often pass things on to them too."

But all this work is only a part of the real function of the Red Cross. Basically, says Miss Wilson, the aim is to have as many trained and qualified volunteers on hand as possible – to cope with emergencies and crises wherever and whenever they should occur. And these sort of things do happen.

The Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Kensington with nothing but the clothes they stood up in, had much to thank the hard-working Red Cross volunteers for by the time many of them left the Kensington Barracks.

Within a matter of hours, Miss Wilson and volunteers from the two detachments based in Chelsea, as well as the third detachment at Imperial College, had made their arrangements.

Within three days the antiquated and empty barracks boasted a miniature hospital, 24-hour mobile surgery, medical supplies and a vast stock of second-hand clothing and essential equipment to help meet the needs of the 346 destitute, sick and shocked refugees.

On the first night volunteers coped with huge numbers of sick children, mothers with tiny babies, elderly people including a very sick woman in her eighties and eventually played their part in the birth and care of a Vietnamese baby born a few weeks later.

"I must admit I found it all very exciting and stimulating," said Patricia Wilson looking back on the hectic months she and her team spent there.

"But after all," she continued, "that's what we're trained to do – to cope in a crisis. I think one of the great advantages of the Red Cross is that it helps people work together, teaches us how to treat other people and it's very humanising. Most important of all, the courses in nursing and first aid give people confidence that they will know just what to do when there's an accident or an emergency."

So much so, in fact, that when a Chelsea Red Cross volunteer found a motor-cyclist lying in the road after an accident with a leg broken in two places, the police told a local doctor that they didn't think his help was needed.

"I think the police knew that the VAD was well qualified to deal with it and had already made an excellent job of it. Later he escorted the cyclist to hospital in an ambulance."

The local authorities, too, recognise the value of the Red Cross contribution. In the event that a disaster should hit Chelsea, plans have already been drawn up to deal with it.

"In a flood, for example, we already know what we have to do. As soon as I hear about it I would be in touch with my detachment commandants and we could mobilise about 30 VADs almost immediately. Our first duty would be to evacuate and look after the elderly in Chelsea.

"The council already hold lists of people at risk and we would be equipped to offer first aid, comfort, food, refreshments and those sorts of things within a couple of hours."

Standing instructions already exist in the Red Cross centre and further help, ambulances and equipment can be called from London Branch headquarters, although Miss Wilson has squirreled away a large stock of supplies in the Chelsea depot.

"The only problem," she says with a smile, "is that our building here is likely to be one of the first places to be flooded!"

So, is Miss Wilson pleased with the way Chelsea supports the Red Cross?

"Oh yes," she says. "Last year we made £8,000 from the shop alone. Next year we hope to do even better. We've got a lot of local volunteers although we're always looking for more – especially car-drivers who'll help with escort work."

"We run a very successful Monday Club for pensioners who make a lot of useful things here."

"On top of that we have our Fair which is due to be held at the town hall this year, which is usually well supported. This time we've got two members of the Japanese Red Cross coming who will be demonstrating the art of Origami (paper folding) among the usual stalls we lay on, and the raffles and buffet."

The Fair took place this week with Virginia McKenna as opener.

The only thing that Miss Wilson feels needs boosting is the number of people wanting to take up courses in first aid and nursing.

"We are always on the look out for youngsters and schoolchildren who will come in as cadets and stay the course. We need more trained people and we're always very pleased to see people who want to do these courses."

They each last 10 weeks and lead to a qualification as a VAD.

Taking me upstairs to the large, open and spotlessly clean demonstration room. Miss Wilson showed me the well-equipped store-rooms, a couple of beds which are used for nursing and first aid practice, as well as a somewhat ghoulish dummy of a woman lying in one of the beds who is used for practice as well.

In a crisis this large room could quickly become an emergency centre if the need ever arose, she thought. And somehow, in the nicest possible way, I felt that the possibility of such a crisis almost excited her.

Not that she would wish for anything disastrous in the borough (which she clearly loves) but perhaps because when you're equipped and trained for something, there's always a secret hope that you'll get the chance to put it all into practice.

"That's why the Vietnamese situation was so exciting," she said. "It was a very worthwhile and happy time for all of us and it brought everyone together to get things done. Rather like the spirit during the war."

I know what she means and I left the Centre feeling very happy that should a dreaded disaster happen, there would be so many willing and able volunteers to help.

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© (1979) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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