From the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Cayman’s residents became well familiar with the names and faces of the experts who successfully took the islands through lockdown to an almost-normal existence.
Danielle Coleman, director of Hazard Management Cayman Islands, brought her considerable skills and experience to the table, working closely with chief medical officer Dr. John Lee and government officials to create COVID safety policies and protocols.
Cayman-born Coleman has a diverse resume, which includes a period working in Thailand at the Tsunami Volunteer Centre. It seems the path she chose to follow has well-equipped her for dealing with a pandemic that has brought much of the world to its knees.
Even before the virus took hold, Cayman had its fair share of extraordinary events, with an earthquake in late January and the landfill fire in early March, not to mention the prediction of an above-average hurricane season. It is safe to say that Coleman and her team have had their hands full in 2020.
A call to serve
Her call to serve others started when she was about 8 years old. She volunteered with the Red Cross and Girls Brigade, moving on to community service with a school for the disabled when she was in sixth form.
Although Coleman’s original choice of study was law, Hurricane Ivan had a profound impact on her.
“[It] was a game-changer for me, and I realised that my heart wasn’t in the legal profession,” she says.
She had suffered from severe bouts of insomnia in 2004, and the day she walked away from law, the insomnia stopped. Clearly, her body was trying to tell her something.
Coleman got her first real taste of disaster recovery work in early 2005, when she headed to Thailand to work at the Tsunami Volunteer Centre in a dive recovery programme. That country had experienced a devastating tsunami on 26 Dec. 2004, and it needed as many helping hands as possible.
“It was my steepest learning curve to-date,” she says. “I was based in the Khao Lak, Phang Nga area (a place not much bigger than George Town and Seven Mile Beach), where approximately 4,500 people lost their lives. We dived all day in thick wetsuits, despite the water temperature being like a hot Jacuzzi, because the sea was full of debris and lionfish.
“Visibility was very poor (about 1 foot), so we (as dive buddies) were tied together by a cord. To make the situation even more difficult, the seabed was covered in plastic mannequins, as there were many dressmakers/dress shops in the area. It was sometimes difficult to determine what was plastic and what was potentially human remains. It was both a harrowing and humbling introduction to the world of emergency response.”
The work was gruelling, but she loved it.
“Most of my training was practical and hands-on as opposed to theoretical, but in order to get accepted into the International Federation of Red Cross’s Emergency Response Unit (logistics) and the Americas Regional Intervention Team (generalist), I had to study a lot and do a number of exams/ interviews and training,” she says.
Being stuck in a field somewhere for simulation activities – with very limited facilities – for anywhere between five and 12 days became the norm.
After Thailand, she got a job with the British Red Cross as a learning and development coordinator, before finally making her way back home to Cayman.
Despite working in a number of seemingly unrelated industries over the years, Coleman has found that the skills she has gained in that time have all been relevant to her present position.
“I’ve always loved learning new things and being challenged,” she says. “Given all the emergencies we have had to respond to this year, this is no doubt a good thing.”
The ability to adapt to the curve balls that emergencies inevitably throw at people is also an important talent, that is often only learned after working in a range of unexpected situations.
“As emergency responders, we have to ensure that we can respond to the forever-changing landscape that presents itself at the time,” Coleman explains. “Listening and quickly analysing the information, leaving personal agendas at the door and working together as a cohesive team is all very important in this line of work.”
Even those with the coolest heads will have their moments in a crisis, and Coleman is no exception.
“I think the day I stop getting nervous, is probably the day I need to find myself a new career,” she says. “I’m a very strong believer in teamwork and an effective response is only achievable if you have the right people working together for a common goal.
“I rely heavily on those around me (both at the National Emergency Operations Centre as well as my family) to keep me balanced. I also practise regular yoga, reiki and meditation to ensure my mental wellness remains intact.”
Coleman has always been driven by the urge to ‘give back’ and the importance of social responsibility.
“Whilst emergency response is one way of doing it, working and volunteering with agencies that focus on important social issues, such as human rights, gender equality, child protection and disabilities etc. has always been of equal importance to me,”
Although she feels that the promotion of women in the emergency response field has improved in the past 15 years, Coleman thinks there is room for improvement.
“We still have a way to go before we fully recognise the benefits that women can bring to the table, and how emergency services in Cayman – and further afield – could benefit both operationally and strategically with a more balanced gender representation,” she says.
Danielle Coleman is living proof.