England boss Gareth Southgate put to the test in two-day intense disaster training

England boss Gareth Southgate put to the test in two-day intense disaster training 1


No sooner do they reach her than there is another alert. Trapped motorists are calling for help from wrecked cars piled on a nearby road in near-apocalyptic scenes.

The aftermath of an apparent ­hurricane, buildings, cars and homes turned to tinder and crushed into oblivion, is all too real.

Only the ­presence of Gareth Southgate – kitted out in hi-viz jacket, helmet and safety goggles and leading one of the rescue teams – suggests that the ­terrifying incident is in fact a training simulation for Serve On, a British humanitarian response charity.

Cynics might scoff that, as England football manager, Southgate should already be well-versed in so-called disaster management, despite his excellent track record and reputation for calm competency.

But the man at the helm of England’s national football dream is too shrewd to entirely rule out the possibility of future storms.

After all, the story of England football managers since 1966 is ­littered with casualties.

Which is why Southgate found himself swapping his famous waistcoat for the bright ­yellow vest of an urban search-and-rescue operator as he and other elite British sports coaches were put through their paces during two days of intense disaster training.

As well as the hazardous rescues, the coaches had to deal with a fast-escalating conflict situation that ended with them being “taken into custody” and “interrogated” by ­security forces.

The real pressure ramped up, however, when they were required to run the Operations Room, managing a constantly-evolving disaster scenario based on Serve On volunteers’ own experiences of Hurricane Irma and other crisis deployments.

Dealing with water shortages, ­communications problems, refugees and incoming supplies was complicated for the trainers as they were informed that the imminent arrival of another “hurricane” had turned their job into a race against time.

Southgate, who took his players for training with the Royal Marines before the World Cup, says: “When you want to go further and learn and develop, you have always got to be open to new ideas and new ways of working.

“It’s been a really good insight into the work that goes on. I don’t think any of us appreciated exactly how much goes into any operation, and the skills required, the bravery that is necessary for some of the rescue ­situations and some of the relationships you have to build with local communities. There were a lot of areas that we hadn’t thought about and, in terms of the challenge, it was great that we were being overloaded with information to see how we reacted to that.”

Gareth Southgate

Gareth Southgate was put through his paces during two days of intense disaster training (Image: PA Wire)

Southgate, along with GB Paralympics head coach Paula Dunn, England Rugby Sevens head coach Simon Amor, British Athletics head of endurance Barry Fudge, and other senior coaches from the sports of rowing, canoeing and rugby, had arrived at Serve On’s training HQ in Wiltshire to be pitched straight into scenarios designed to take them out of their comfort zone.

Serve On was set up five years ago to harness the skills and can-do ­attitude of men and women leaving the military, and to give a new ­purpose to those who had suffered injury, or were simply struggling with the transition into civilian life.

They combined with serving and former emergency services personnel and civilians who already had rescue skills and disaster deployment ­experience to form an International Response Team, ready to go at a moment’s notice anywhere in the world after ­natural disasters.

They also carry out risk reduction training for ­vulnerable, ­disaster-prone communities.

Volunteers from the Serve On humanitarian response charity have carried out more than 20 deployments to disasters, most recently to earthquakes in Pakistan in 2005, Haiti in 2010, Nepal in 2015 and after Hurricane Irma devastated parts of the Caribbean in 2017.

That is why UK Sport’s World Class Coaching: Elite Programme chose to take some of the country’s best ­trainers to learn lessons from Serve On’s rescue volunteers.

The question coaches such as Southgate wrestle with is this: in a world where young professional sports stars are increasingly cocooned by clubs from an early age, and forever told how good they are, where are they going to find the mental strength to cope when things go disastrously wrong, as they someday will do?

The answer is to team them up with people who deal with chaos on a daily basis.

England Rugby has twice put under-20s through Serve On’s disaster scenario exercises, and players who have gone on to international experience include Ted Hill, Marcus Smith, Ben Earl, Nick Isiekwe and Joe Cokanasiga.

England’s all-conquering Women’s Rugby Squad also went through Serve On’s disaster exercises before the last World Cup, which may go some way to explaining why their on-field decision-making is so sharp.

Serve On

Serve On volunteers in Nepal after the earthquake of 2015 (Image: Serve On)

“It is always good to apply pressure situations in decision-making and that carries across to our own worlds,” says Soutgate.

“This was ­testing us under different pressure and it was all about the team and about making sure everybody was working together. If as coaches we improve, then it should improve our players or athletes.”

Serve On operations director Dan Cooke, a veteran of numerous disaster deployments, said: “I am always impressed by the incredible people we find ourselves working with, and to share our world in a way that helps the UK’s elite coaches was a privilege for myself and our teams.”

He added: “We always learn from the challenging missions and projects we deploy to, and see the best and worst of humanity. It’s nice to pass on some of that experience but we also learn from our guests, and the elite coaches were excellent in the way they applied themselves to the problems.”

The disaster experiences are also a way for Serve On to fund their ­important work.

The charity’s volunteers rely entirely on donations to keep their work going.

They quickly realised the resilience-building they were doing globally could also help flood-prone communities in the UK and give a new purpose to more people.

The first Serve On Community Resilience Team (CRT), set up in Salisbury where the charity is based, will soon be joined by CRTs in Portsmouth and Worthing, with others in the pipeline.

They are supported by the charity’s Dog Team of specialist volunteer search dog handlers.

CRT members also form the core of the charity’s water rescue teams which are on DEFRA’s national register of flood response assets and which have helped after flooding in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Cornwall in recent years.

Now, with so many inspirational role models, the charity has launched a Rescue Rookies scheme for 14 to 18-year-olds, to give teens the chance to get involved in adventurous activities and help their community while learning new skills to boost their confidence and their CVs.

Gareth Southgate

The England football manager has a reputation for calm competency (Image: Getty)

The charity is always on the look-out for new volunteers of all ages, and from all walks of life – ordinary people who want to do extraordinary things for others.

Hopefully Gareth Southgate can avoid all disasters and win the World Cup.

But if it doesn’t go well, there could be a hi-viz waistcoat with his name on it.

  • For more information on Serve On, to volunteer or to donate, go to serveon.org.uk

  • Martin Phillips was sent to report on the new charity five years ago and was so impressed by its inspirational volunteers he ended up joining, and subsequently passed training to become a member of Serve On’s International Response Team.


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