By Joseph Leger, Canadian Red Cross communications aid worker


Getting a field hospital from Canada to Nhamatanda in Mozambique on the east coast of Africa is no simple task. Packed onto 200 pallets, the 53 tons of equipment crosses six time zones and more than 14,000 km in the cargo hold of a 747 before arriving at its destination.
 
Few people understand this challenge better than Garth Tohms, a logistics aid worker with the Canadian Red Cross.
 
Canadian Red Crosser Garth Tohms“In the past, my job was divided between several different members of the team,” explains Garth. “This meant that other team members had to shift their focus away from their primary roles to do this job – which wasn’t the most efficient way of doing things.”
 
Logistics is a critical part of any emergency response and having a dedicated logistician makes a big difference because getting the equipment into the country is only the first step.
 
“Logistics is responsible for making sure all the equipment gets into the country, that we have all the paperwork we need for our equipment to clear customs,” says Garth. “Once we are on the ground, it becomes a lot of inventory management and procurement.”
 
A field hospital can be sent about anywhere in the world on very short notice and be self-sustainable. Sometimes this does not include fuel or water, because it is heavy to ship and can be hazardous and the water treatment system can purify water at the destination if necessary, but a suitable water source must be found.
 
“I try to locate fuel and water right away and try to keep that supply going throughout, along with all the other critical supplies we might need,” says Garth. “I’ve developed a process over the years, the first thing I do when I land is I go to markets and just walk around and see what’s available.”
 
This is where local staff are invaluable.
 
“Mamade, my assistant, speaks the local language as well as English and he believes in our mission and what we’re doing,” says Garth. "I don’t know where we would be without him and our other local staff.”
 
Responding to disasters requires a high degree of flexibility. Things can change quickly and the team on the ground have to be able to pivot to address new challenges and needs.
 
For example, the field hospital was transformed into a cholera treatment centre to respond to the post-cyclone cholera outbreak. Cholera is a highly infectious disease and treating it requires large quantities of cleaning products, much of which was purchased on the ground.

“I think good logistics is not only more efficient, but it makes the donor’s dollar go further,” he says. “It’s really important to get the most bang for our buck and we can do that with a logistics person when we are buying in scale, doing tenders and the process is transparent. This way donors know that we are doing everything we can to make sure their money is spent in the most efficient way.”

Sending the field hospital was made possible thanks to generous donations from Canadians, and support from the Government of Canada. 

Related stories: 

Delivering babies in near darkness in Mozambique
Meet Elizabeth: a Red Cross volunteer helping in emergencies here and abroad
Stories from the Red Cross cholera treatment centre in Mozambique