It could be anything from a community crisis to a national disaster. When it comes to handling emergencies, a growing band of young Emirati volunteers is ready to spring into action.
Set up by the Emirates Foundaton, Sanid began five years ago to give impassioned young Emiratis a platform to give back to the community by responding to and managing crises.
Maytha Al Habsi, chief programmes officer, says the initiative was based on two best-practice models, one in the United States and the other in Sweden.
“Like all advanced countries around the world, it is always important to make sure that your community is ready and well prepared to respond to any kind of crisis, whether they be small at home in your neighbourhood or if it happens at a national level,” she says.
“The vision for Sanid was to create a programme that prepares and manages the community during a crisis. We have two levels – on one level we are preparing the community in general, making them more prepared and more aware of how to keep themselves, their families and their communities safe all the time, whether there’s something substantial or something small.
“And then in the case of a national crisis happening in the country, then we become the supporting body to the authority in managing the community at that time.”
Anyone between the ages of 16 and 35 can join, but the target is young Emiratis. Of more than 3,000 volunteers, roughly 75 per cent are Emirati. After gaining the appropriate certification, volunteers are divided into teams with hierarchies mirroring those of the Civil Defence authorities.
In case of an emergency, Civil Defence will contact Sanid who, after assessing the situation, can mobilise its volunteers by contacting team leaders. These, in turn, delegate to their teams, ensuring as fast a response as possible.
There are 15 teams across the country, including five in Abu Dhabi, three in Dubai and two in Sharjah.
“The sizes of the teams depends on the population and the size of the city. So basically on the island of Abu Dhabi you would expect more team members than a neighbourhood in Fujairah,” Ms Al Habsi says. “But what is more important is that the structure is the same.”
Residents aged 15 and above, unsure if they want to commit to volunteering, can take citizen preparedness training. This three-hour course gives a basic overview of first aid, firefighting and being ready for a disaster. From here they can move on to increasingly advanced levels of training.
This includes learning about crowd management, psychology, teamwork, traffic safety and crisis communications.
Each different level means 12 hours of training.
“From level one, you enter the database immediately, where basically you are agreeing to be part of a rescue team that we can call upon when an emergency happens,” Ms Al Habsi says.
“Level two is advanced, so you get advanced first aid, CPR, search and rescue and advanced team building.
“You become part of the structure and you basically manage level-one volunteers so we give you the leadership skills that are required.
“Level three is more advanced and also more specialised because from level four we pick our leaders, and if you have a specialised skill that you want to contribute to the team you start to focus on that.
“For example, if you are a great driver of four-wheel cars and a certain crisis happens in the desert that requires that specific skill, we can call upon you.”
After level four, Civil Defence takes volunteers on real firefighting missions, training them at police academies. At various stages, they also take part in emergency exercises, dubbed by some as “Hollywood” assessments for their realistic make-up and attention to detail. These aim to recreate a range of situations, from fires to plane crashes.
Sanid uses a three-colour system. In a code green, such as minor tremors, volunteers are put on standby. During a code yellow they are mobilised and put on high alert, awaiting further instructions.
For code red, Sanid deploys equipment and mobilises volunteers to respond to a national catastrophe.
One of Sanid’s first major ventures was sending 15 volunteers to Pakistan in 2010 after severe floods devastated the country.
“NCEMA (the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority) asked us to provide volunteers to help them support their mission over there,” Ms Al Habsi says.
“Our rescue mission over was really well done. It was the volunteers’ first international experience since we started the programme and they got to practise everything they have learnt during their training period.
“They were stars, based on the feedback that we got from the authorities that were overseeing, and also the community.
“We had doctors among them who treated injured and sick children and who really entertained them during this difficult time, which is very important.
“There was emotional support for the families and the children who were basically living in tents, all of a sudden, after living in houses.
“And they distributed food every day for about three weeks – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and made sure that every tent got their food and aid supplies and that their requests were being looked after.”
Among the 12 volunteers to go to Pakistan was Emirati Ali Khoori, 27, team leader for the south section of Abu Dhabi island. He joined Sanid in its early days and quickly rose to the highest certification. The Adco engineer is so passionate, he even enrolled his fiancee.
Mr Khoori said the process was very fast, fitting of the urgency of the situation. This is typical of Sanid, as volunteers need to be able to respond to call-outs within 15 minutes.
“To be honest, we didn’t have much confidence before we went there,” he says. “We didn’t think we had enough experience to deal with a national flood. But we were successful, and when we finished we did have that confidence – that we were capable and all the training paid off.”
His group helped three villages, scenes he described as “extreme”.
“We had worked out a plan, but when we got there – it was clear we didn’t have a plan,” he says. “When we looked at it, people said there used to be a village here. But you felt there was nothing. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
“When we finished we were so proud that we represented the UAE in such a good way. It gave us insight on what the UAE is trying to do to help other nations, which we tried to be a part of.
“Sheikh Zayed used to explain to us, when you have resources, you don’t keep them to yourself. You help others. We’re all human and we all live on the same planet. Doing a job is not enough to give back to the community. By volunteering, you’re giving something without asking for payout and in the end you benefit your country, you benefit your community and you benefit yourself.”
Volunteers also helped Syrian refugees in a camp in Jordan last year, with an impressive number of women signing up.
“It’s amazing, I think the majority were females and this was something that made us really proud,” Ms Al Habsi says. “The volunteers were called to go and provide assistance within literally three days.
“The Red Crescent already had a lot of male volunteers but were hoping to get more females to provide certain types of support.
“They requested four volunteers but over two days we had literally about 15 females signing up to travel, which is amazing – getting female volunteers to travel in the first place – because it’s considered risky and needs family approval and all that.
“The Red Crescent team basically had a really big mobile hospital provided by the UAE Government, so we were there also doing a lot of administrative work, supporting the thousands of Syrians who are there wanting to get aid, help, equipment and clothes.”
Dr Roula Shaaban, a 35-year-old vet, was one such volunteer. She says she was chosen because of her specialisation – a master’s degree in healthcare administration.
“My work was to go each section, tell them how they can improve the quality of their work and write records for them,” she says. “But we all helped with everything throughout the hospital. You hear about Syria, but going really let us really see how people are feeling.
“If I could do it again I would. Eight days was not enough to help as much as we wanted to. The day when we were preparing to go home, I remember one of the Syrian doctors told us people always came and went. This was one of the things that made us become sad.”
Although her family was slightly worries about the camp’s proximity to the Syrian conflict, they did not hold her back. This was also the case earlier this year, when Ms Shaaban helped rebuild houses for US families displaced by a hurricane.
“Really we found the UAE do more in this area than anyone, and it’s not a new thing. We have done it since Sheikh Zayed,” she says.