WHEN disaster-level flooding struck Papua New Guinea in 2008, Red Cross volunteer Mike Carson didn't expect one village's biggest problem to be a displaced reptile.
"One of the villages we came across, the biggest problem was getting water," Mr Carson said. "A salt water crocodile had taken up residence in the stream - they were waiting for someone to come and shoot the crocodile. It was a problem you just wouldn't think to exist."
It's not a problem the Wanganui man faces that often as an Information Technology and Telecommunication (IT&T) volunteer. His team is one of five in the world that travels to disaster zones and sets up communication infrastructure. While his job is about getting networks up and running and fixing equipment, Mr Carson also deals with governments around the world and assessing the needs of villages.
As he describes it, sometimes it's about figuring out that it takes seven jumbo jets to transport 100,000 blankets. He also works closer to home.
It all started for Mr Carson at a first aid course about 10 years ago when he was asked about joining the local responses Disaster Welfare Support Team for the Red Cross.
It was all about "helping people and basic rescue skills" said the Powerco employee and former Niwa hydrologist and environmental technician.
The Wanganui team helped out at the recent forest fire in Santoft which cost nearly $100,000 to fight. The fire near Bulls, which was started by an incinerator, needed 130 firefighters, 23 fire appliances, three helicopters and a fixed-wing aeroplane to bring it under control.
"We have an agreement with the New Zealand Fire Service locally. Wanganui is the only Red Cross team that does this."
Volunteers need training to be on the "fire ground", but once there are able to look after the welfare of the firefighters by making sure eye wash stations are provided and keeping them fed and watered, as well as dealing with minor burns. Before that the local team helped with water distribution at Raetihi following the 2013 oil spill where the Makotuku Stream and Raetihi's water supply were polluted and residents were left without drinking water for three weeks.
The team also headed down to Christchurch to help out in the earthquake aftermath. Mr Carson was in charge of co-ordinating 130 volunteers, and said some of the memories that stayed with him the most were seeing people living in houses they wouldn't normally consider living in, and not knowing when they'd receive help or assistance. He was also surprised at how self-sufficient older people were. "They didn't ask for help because they always thought there would be people worse off than them, and they really did need help," he said.
When Wanganui was hit by flooding in 2013, Mr Carson and his team went door knocking, speaking to residents and offering help to anyone who needed it.
When Mr Carson was away at a North Island local team exercise, one of the managers approached him to see if he'd join the international response team. "You have to be interviewed, then you have to do some training before you're accepted into the team."
It involved learning just what it meant to be involved in the Red Cross, and the guiding principles of the organisation, one of which is "universality".
"To have concern for all humanity," he said. "To be neutral in our work. It's all about just being a big family in a lot of ways. Universality is just about working all across the world . . . we don't take sides, we're impartial. We're in the country to do the best for the people, we don't work for the government. That Red Cross [emblem] is actually really important. That saves lives. A lot of people around the world recognise what the Red Cross stands for. If you're wearing a red cross, people will normally respect that."
When in Papua New Guinea for the king tide flooding, Mr Carson worked on establishing a radio network with the local health service, and doing maintenance and repair work on radio equipment. He also worked on computer systems and went to meetings with the Government and health department.
But he was also involved in helping volunteers that had been flooded out, and made assessments on the local villages.
"You go to a place and there's no buildings left," he said.
He was sent over to the Philippines in 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Typhoon Yolanda) hit. "New Zealand deployed a team of three initially to help support the disaster relief team," he said. Mixing with American and Danish IT&T teams, they made up a team of nine. The group of about 120 Red Cross volunteers from around the world took over an old Energizer battery warehouse with no power or water. "We made that work," he said. "I'm really proud because I went over as the team leader for our team. About a week in I became team leader of the international team."
In the "busy" and "tiring" environment, Mr Carson and his fellow volunteers had to work on organising transport for everyone, as well as everything from driving forklifts to putting up lights.
While there is danger involved in his job, Mr Carson doesn't worry. "Have I felt unsafe? No. Have I been very aware of my surroundings? Yes . . . the danger's all relative. There's always a risk to what you do. I had an interesting experience in Papua New Guinea where our vehicle got stopped for a routine vehicle check. It was really odd to have four policemen with shotguns standing around the vehicle. I've flown into an airport where they won't let you out of the airport terminal until everybody's got their baggage . . . it's just a different environment that you're not used to.
"When you go overseas now, doesn't matter where you've been, that first day or so you need to step back and do a lot of listening. Your best friend is your driver, they know what's going on in your country, they know where you can go."
While the job sometimes carries 18-20 hour work days and volunteers usually receive only 24 hours notice before being flown out to a disaster zone, Mr Carson enjoys it.
"You always feel like you're there for such a little time you need to put as much effort in as you can, so we work hard. You meet heaps of different people and you meet a lot of like-minded people who are there and getting tired and sometimes getting grumpy, but they want to be there.
"Why do we want to be there? I suppose because we want to help people. We know we're making a difference."
The local Red Cross team, which has 18 members, is always looking for new recruits. If you'd like to donate to the Red Cross, go to redcross.org.nz.