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Crisis protocol to speed disaster response

FORT CASWELL, N.C. (BP)–Southern Baptists took a major step toward responding more quickly to overseas disasters when their state disaster relief directors approved a new protocol for mobilizing “initial responders” to crisis situations overseas.

Gathering April 21-23 at Fort Caswell, N.C., for their annual “roundtable” meeting, disaster relief coordinators for three dozen Baptist state conventions approved a six-point recommendation from a subcommittee charged with hammering out the protocol in consultation with the North American Mission Board and Baptist Global Response, a new Southern Baptist international relief and development organization.

“This new agreement between the North American Mission Board and Baptist Global Response has pushed us way ahead,” said Jim Didlake, disaster relief director for the Mississippi Baptist Convention, as he presented the proposal. “What we see here is something we have hoped for for a long time, and that is a real plan to respond to disasters overseas.”

Southern Baptist response in times of crisis has been hampered by the difficulty of identifying team members with the appropriate skills and getting them quickly to the scene of the disaster, said Jim Brown, stateside director for Baptist Global Response. Under the new plan, Baptist state conventions will compile a roster of “initial responders” who will be given intensive training for crisis intervention. A major change in the new plan is that initial responders from two or three states will be on call for immediate response during designated months of the year.

“This approach gives us a lot of flexibility to meet the specific needs that arise when a crisis breaks, whether the need is to send in a team of four people or eight people or two teams of five people,” Brown said. “States will be able to mobilize the initial responders very quickly. We will have two or three states on call at the same time, so the burden doesn’t fall only on one state.”

Southern Baptists have a very efficient protocol for responding to disasters in the United States, with the North American Mission Board serving as a hub to identify needs and match volunteer teams from churches and state conventions that have the right skill sets for the task, Brown noted. Southern Baptists have been recognized by the American Red Cross and federal emergency management leaders for the crucial role played by volunteers in the aftermath of disasters like that on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of hurricanes in 2005.

The process of responding to overseas disasters is now more streamlined since the International Mission Board contracted with Baptist Global Response as a “21st-century partner” for international relief and development, Brown said. Baptist Global Response will facilitate connections between International Mission Board field personnel, national partners, stateside disaster relief directors and the North American Mission Board.

All the new protocol requires is for a Baptist Global Response area director to determine that a crisis response will require stateside assistance. Then Baptist Global Response, in collaboration with the North American
Mission Board, will immediately mobilize the initial responders on call,
Brown said. Initial responders can then be on the scene of a disaster quickly, providing preliminary ministry assistance to field partners and assessing future needs for long-term ministry support teams.

Initial responder teams will be made up of people with specialized skills, such as engineers, medical personnel and water sanitation, explained Sam Porter, disaster relief director for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. Team members will be trained to work cross-culturally in disaster relief specialties like assessment and logistics.

“This is going to be a huge opportunity for us in Southern Baptist life,” Porter told the group. “In Oklahoma, we are going to put together an A-Team of people who have special skills. There are going to be a lot of requirements, but it’s going to help our field partners to know that we are sending the very best volunteers from each of our states and that they aren’t just coming out of impulse.”

Initial responders also will be trained in spiritual care and Bible storying, Brown noted.

“We ask disaster relief volunteers to go out and meet physical needs all the time, but there really are tremendous opportunities for a team to provide spiritual care -– praying for people and sharing a relevant 90-second Bible story that can give them hope in their time of crisis,” he said.

“When we respond to a crisis, it’s not just because of the project but because the Lord wants us to touch people’s lives, to care for their hurt and show His love and compassion.”

State disaster relief directors plan to have initial responder teams online by June 1 to cover the remainder of 2008. Training for those teams will begin this summer and should be completed by Dec. 31, 2009.
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press.

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