Snow in April? Our London test exercise was a big success

On Monday 30th April a group of community reserve volunteers worked alongside specialist British Red Cross emergency response volunteers and Hackney local authority in a pretend exercise that would strike fear into the heart of any London commuter: heavy snow and freezing temperatures, leading to the suspension of train services in and out of the capital.

Actors played the part of stranded commuters with different concerns, including the need for specific medication or phone access. Some ‘commuters’ handled the disruption with more grace than others!

As part of the exercise volunteers were busy supporting people at a makeshift rest centre, and activities included shifting emergency equipment between locations, sourcing and preparing food and drink, and providing warm clothes as temperatures continued to drop.

As the exercise went on, the situation worsened. Trains were still suspended, and no overnight accomodation was offered, fraying the tempers of the ‘commuters’. The volunteers worked together to inflate air beds and provide blankets, while the specialist emergency response volunteers offered emotional support to the stranded travellers.

Sonia Gayle, 57, from Lewisham, was one of the new community reserve volunteers taking part. She said:

“After everything that happened last year, I was travelling around London on public transport and wondering, what could I do, if things went badly wrong? I knew I’d want to be part of the solution, make a positive contribution, so I was glad to become a community reserve volunteer.

“I loved the exercise today!” she went on. “It has been a very useful learning experience and I’ve enjoyed the interaction with the other volunteers, who are from all sorts of different backgrounds. It has helped me imagine what kind of help I’d need if I was on the other side of things, like helping people charge their phones so they can get in touch with their families.

“I’ve had a few ideas to share for the future, and I’ve really enjoyed myself.”

Community reserves volunteers loading supplies for the rest centre. Photo by Matt Crossick.

One familiar face among the volunteers at the simulation was actress Amanda Redman, 60, star of TV shows ‘New Tricks’ and ‘The Good Karma Hospital’.

“During the London terror attacks and devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, I was amazed to see British Red Cross volunteers on the news, and realised just how much they do to support people in crisis,” said Amanda. “I wanted to do more to help, but I didn’t know how, so when I found out about this Red Cross opportunity, I was glad to sign up.”

“Like many of us, my life is so hectic, but as a community reserve volunteer, you would only be called upon if there’s a crisis in your area,” she said.

Amanda Redman at the exercise in London. Photo by Matt Crossick.

Simon Lewis, the head of crisis response at the British Red Cross, said “Today’s exercise has shown us yet again how kindness and team work can make a huge difference in a crisis. You don’t need special skills to help others, just a willingness to get stuck in.

“This simulation helped us test the level of response from our community reserve volunteers and assess the practical tasks they might be asked to do in a real emergency.  Community reserve volunteers may only be called upon once or twice a year, but their help can be vital and exercises like this helps us be ready to respond quickly to an emergency situation.”

It only takes ten minutes to sign up to become a community reserve volunteer. The initiative, which is funded by Aviva, has already seen more than 4,000 people sign up including more than 600 in London.