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Profile: Francine Pilcher


Francine Pilcher has recently completed her first disaster engineering assignment in a village in north west India. She hopes to work for RedR in the future, as she told Damian Arnold when he met her in Nani Boru.

Francine Pilcher has taken her first steps towards a career on the disaster engineering frontline.

After four years of consultancy, first with Carl Bro and then Pell Frischmann, 26 year old Pilcher felt the need for something more than the next routine flood defence or drainage project.

'I spent some time working in a Romanian orphanage when I was 18 and wanted to use my engineering qualifications in this kind of way. I would like to be accepted within RedR but I need relevant experience.'

Turning the pages of the Guardian last autumn she saw an advertisement for volunteers for a housing project in a village in the Indian state of Gujarat which was devastated by a huge earthquake in January 2001. By December she was on the plane having been granted a one month sabbatical by her employer.

The Ahmedebad Study Action Group (ASAG) project was to design and build 62 houses and repair 34 badly damaged structures in the village of Nani Boru near the city of Ahmedebad.

Pilcher was one of a group of seven volunteers. Fifty houses had been completed when she arrived and her first job was to check that they had been built as designed.

She then surveyed plots for the next batch of houses to be built. She had to establish what type of property the owner had before and base the standard earthquake resistant designed house into their plot. Her job was to talk to the villagers about the proposed structure and negotiate with them changes to the designs that would not compromise the safety of the structure. 'We needed to make each standard design family specific. Some people wanted the toilet in a different place or an extra room or scope to extend the property in the future.'

Contrary to her expectations a lot of time was spent enjoying the hospitality of the villagers in their temporary shelters - the volunteers were housed in a former cowshed. Only after the tenth cup of tea they might get around to business.

It wasn't the dynamic all action experience that Pilcher was expecting and with only a few weeks in which to make an impact it could be frustrating, she says. But she learnt a lot about the patience and sensitivity required for a rebuilding project after a disaster.

'I learnt about the speed that things are done here, ' she says.

'Relief projects can be set up very quickly but rebuilding the community takes so much longer.'

Pilcher's initiative was applauded by RedR as a vital stepping stone to getting accepted for this type of work.

'We expect people to have three to five years professional experience plus two years overseas, preferably in disaster relief, ' says RedR's senior recruitment and placement officer Pauline Ballamon. 'But if they have done VSO or voluntary work that would also help to get them on to the register.'

Once satisfied that the applicant has the right experience RedR then focuses on personality, she says. 'It's about whether that person can cope with working in a completely different cultural environment living in the same space as lots of other people.'

She added that RedR is currently so popular that it will not be accepting applications for the next two to three months.

INFOPLUS www. Help RedR by taking part in the RedR Challange at Civils 2002.

Contact Sally Devine on 020 7505 6644 for details.

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