Ginny Wilson-North, Red Cross Volunteer

PUBLISHED: 15:04 10 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:51 20 February 2013

Ginny Wilson-North checks her kit, ready for the next emergency search and rescue mission anywhere in the world.

Ginny Wilson-North checks her kit, ready for the next emergency search and rescue mission anywhere in the world.

If people somewhere in the world suffer earthquakes, landslides, even a tsunami, Ginny Wilson-North will be eager to help.

Day in the life of Ginny Wilson-North

Who knows what 2010 will bring? But if people somewhere in the world suffer earthquakes, landslides, even a tsunami, Ginny Wilson-North will be eager to help. Her bags are always packed, just in case the call comes from the Rapid-UK search and rescue charity for which she is a volunteer. Ginny, 41, ran a hairdressing salon at Stalham for 16 years but now works for the British Red Cross. Husband Mark is a firefighter and fellow volunteer. They live near Aylsham.
Interview by Mark Tweedie.

I dont like getting out of bed, though Im not grumpy really. Breakfast goes through phases lately its been Honey Nut Cheerios. Marks with Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service but has been seconded to national projects, so he travels a lot.

My Red Cross job, emergency planning and response co-ordinator, is Norwich-based and covers three counties. In the event of, say, a power failure, we respond to ensure young families have hot water for their children, elderly people have food, blankets, and so on. Of course, being a Rapid-UK volunteer means my routine can be interrupted any time. Once, when I was hairdressing, I was doing someones highlights when Mark called to say: Get over here now! Were off. That was to Algeria, in 2003, to help earthquake victims.

Our bags are always packed: about 30kg of kit. The day rucksack includes protective gear, military-style rations, little hammers and crowbars; the main bag has a tent, sleeping bag, overalls, spare food and a set of clothes to come home in.

My life has been one big journey. It wasnt planned: it just evolved. Growing up, Id wanted to join the RAF to work with dogs, then when I was 15 my dad died. It changed the course of my life. I left school, trained as a hairdresser and later ran the Sizzbizz salon at Stalham. Yet somehow I knew Id do something involving humanitarian assistance eventually. I think its because of Dad.

One day, Mark told me of his interest in training with the organisation, International Rescue Corps. I couldnt quite see how anyone with haircutting skills might fit in, but through a growing desire to do something I became involved in humanitarian work. I spent a few months helping Sri Lankans during the rebuilding stages after the tsunami. Eventually came my career change. So, do I cut anyones hair now? Yes, at work, in return for a donation to the Red Cross.

Once a month, Mark and I go training at Gloucester. Ive learned everything from propping and shoring to using power tools and chainsaws and rescuing with ropes. We use caves in the Forest of Dean to practise working in confined spaces.

But when were actually deployed: what goes through my head? Mixed emotions excitement that Im going to put my skills into practice, but also a fear of the unknown. We might get there as soon as 22 hours after a major earthquake. Suddenly you go from a scene of normality to devastation. People are looking at you with so much hope in their eyes. There may be dangerous aftershocks. Its for real, yet the word surreal keeps coming to mind.
You run on adrenaline. We aim to put in 48 hours of toil before we think of stopping. People often mention thermal imaging cameras, but other search equipment includes special cameras on bendy sticks and Vibraphone devices thatll pinpoint sounds from deep within a collapsed building.

When I started, I was unsure how Id cope with seeing bodies, but you do. You must be detached, because youre there to look for the living. Yet sometimes you find yourself crawling among peoples possessions, and thats hard.

We experience extremes of temperature. Once, in Iran, daytime temperatures were in the late 30s, and because of the local culture I was totally covered up; but it was very cold at night. Last autumn in Indonesia, where we assisted after the earthquake, the heat was in the 40s, plus incredible humidity. And when youre toiling away: the word minging springs to mind! In Pakistan, we went a week without washing. At least were all minging together!
For very different reasons the Pakistan deployment stands out. A 10-storey apartment building had collapsed, and seven people were pulled out alive by the team; eight hours of continuous tunnelling. There was sheer elation at finding people trapped deep inside and being able to do something for them.

At the end of a deployment theres always a debriefing, and later the team meets up for a drink, after weve had time to reflect. Mark and I try to return to normality as soon as possible, even though were absolutely shattered. We love rural life, just tending our veg patch and being at home.

Emotionally, everyone deals with what theyve seen in different ways. Personally, I dream a lot I almost relive everything, then Ill start thrashing around in my sleep so poor Mark gets black and blue.

More information about Rapid-UK at

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