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Passing on crisis skills,Gallantry award for Sierra Leone evacuation

JOHN Dyer does not go looking for disasters and conflict, but he has just spent over a decade in the world’s hotspots. He has been everywhere from war-torn Afghanistan to countries still reeling from the 2004 Asian tsunami, and most notably in Sierra Leone, where his actions earned him the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration in 2000.

Now, however, he has turned his attention to passing his skills on to others and enabling individuals, teams, and organisations to be more agile, particularly in the face of challenges — to be more resilient. One workshop has already been held in Gisborne and more are planned later this month.

The workshop dealt with how individuals coped with the challenges they were going through, how they identified why they did the things they did and what their purpose is. It then gave them tools to move on and cope when life throws some “curve balls”.

“People talk about resilience as just being the bottom of the curve, you can fall off at the top of the curve as well,” said John.

“I use the term resilience — it’s really about returning to your natural state.”

The origin of the workshops comes from him putting together one for Red Cross Federation staff which he was asked to present to a PR company in Geneva.

“It is focused on what I would basically call inner challenges. Realistically, you can say their base line is that they are capable individuals and that is their natural state.

“The problem is things change and you have what some people call the chimp on the shoulder whispering things in your ear. You start doubting yourself.

“Part of this came out of the work I have been doing. When I have seen people lose everything there is only one way to go. They develop purpose and there is no chimp on the shoulder for them.

“The other aspect is how do managers create the environment to enable the people who work for them to develop that inner resilience to cope with those challenges? How do they develop resilient teams?

“The next stage is how do organisations develop a degree of resilience? Part of that is looking at the first two components, the individuals and the teams around crisis management.

“I have been doing quite a bit of work around developing crisis management procedures and putting organisations through simulations as to what happens when they hit a crisis. How does their management team cope with it? What are the things they need to put in place?”

The standard workshops are a day each, one for individuals and one for managers.

In the case of organisations, John likes to talk to them to tailor a solution — that is the scenario he enjoys most.

“That is where I am taking my business — it is called effective resilience.”

Few people would be better placed with this than the man who is recognised as an expert in dealing with dangerous situations.

Wainui SchoolThe son of Chris and Doris Dyer, he was born in Gisborne and educated at Wainui School, Ilminster Intermediate and Gisborne Boys’ High School.

After a year working for J.W.McCulloch Ltd as a welder, he left Gisborne in 1981 and went through the Duntroon military academy in Australia. There he completed officer training and an undergraduate degree.

He returned to the New Zealand Army where he spent 16 years including a spell back at The Australian Defence Force Academy as an instructor. That included postings throughout New Zealand at Christchurch, Auckland, Waiouru, Palmerston North and Wellington.

During this time, he did six months in Sierra Leone in 1998 with the United Nations where he received the NZ Gallantry Decoration.

After leaving the Army he took up the role of chief executive for the NZ Academy of Sport, Central Region, a government initiative to provide support to New Zealand’s top-level athletes. The academy was built into a functioning organisation covering the lower half of the North Island and has now all been incorporated into Sport New Zealand.

He left in 2005 with the intention of doing his own thing but he had been involved for four years on one of the boards of Red Cross.

“They knew I was leaving. It was at the time of the Asian tsunami and they had just had someone shot in northern Sumatra. They wanted someone to go in, look at the set-up, make recommendations and tidy things up.”

Red Cross asked him to go for three months but halfway through that time he got a call from a man in Geneva asking him if he would take on a two-year contract. He got the job and moved there with his wife Julie and two children.

The job was with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent which focuses on natural, technological and man-made disasters. That job actually extended out to 11 years ending last year.

The federation has a permanent presence in 70 to 75 countries but will deploy people in anywhere from 120 to 150 countries, he said.

“The team I worked for was responsible for a couple of aspects. One was assessing the situation and making sure the right sort of structures and security framework were in place so people could do their job.

He also got involved in training individuals and managers to look after themselves in these sort of places.

Cholera outbreak in SomalilandHe has just returned from a month in Somaliland which has declared independence from Somalia but is not recognised. There he was dealing with the response to a cholera outbreak.

It was quieter than troubled Somalia but there were still things going on like clan conflicts and instances of extremist organisation Al Shabab coming across.

Because the country is still officially part of Somalia, you get what John calls the “media effect” — news reports in which everybody sees bullets and bombs.

“But in all of these places where you go — and I have been to Afghanistan, South Sudan, in and out of Pakistan, Lebanon and Beirut — yes, there are things going on but the population is still functioning and they are trying to get on with what they need to do.

“It is a matter of enhancing the knowledge and skills of people and giving them the ability to understand the environment they are in and develop the capacity to be able to operate in it.”

His work involved training packages and assessments to make sure the right security framework was in place and to be able to respond in case of an incident.

“When I started, we would probably have 150 security incidents a year; last year, because of the systems that have been put in place, we are down to 70 or 80.

An incident could be anything from a vehicle accident, to someone being robbed, up to someone being threatened with weapons.

The job has meant on average being away three months plus a year.

“I have been doing mainly short missions — what we call support missions — but also doing a lot of training.

NZ Red CrossThe federation has 190 Red Cross National Societies including the NZ Red Cross.

John and Julie, a Gisborne girl who is the daughter of Jan and Peter Donnelly, decided in December it was time to come home. Their parents still live here and their children Caylee, a teacher and Brayden who is in his last year at university, are back in New Zealand.

“New Zealand is always home,” he said.

His aim is to do some work for Red Cross and set up his own company doing the resilience workshops.

“I am also available to the Red Cross and the federation if they need me and I have the time — such as the Somaliland mission which ended last month.

Working for the UN in Sierra Leone in 1998 was probably the trickiest situation.

The Sierra Leone evacuation, for which he received the gallantry award, was carried out under fire. The rebels had attacked the capital Freetown and John was involved in ferrying people to a waiting helicopter.

“A lot of people did a lot of things and I was just one cog in it. I was quite humbled that the team that were there put me up for the gallantry award.”

But each situation has different challenges. Red Cross did not use armed guards, instead it worked on the concept of acceptance.

“We are there because people want us to be there and almost always we are working with the local society.

“In Somaliland for example, the Somali Red Crescent were the face of the organisation.”

Calm and quietly spoken, John is laconic about his more than a decade in places where conflict is continuous and the risks are always high.




Former Gisborne man John Dyer relaxes on the beach at Waikanae during a recent visit to Gisborne.
John Dyer meets the then President of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, shortly after arriving in the troubled country. Standing behind him in the UN group is another Kiwi, Stephen Pantling.
John Dyer (left) and Red Cross colleagues including New Zealander Kevin Duignan (right) working on reconstruction in Banda Aceh, northern Sumatra, after the 2004 tsunami.
John worked with a group of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone as part of an initiative to integrate them back into society.
A group of people line up beside a helicopter to be evacuated from Sierra Leone after the fighting started again.