Jim Cutts is a logistican and an electrician and has worked in Pakistan, South Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and Sierra Leone.
What were you doing before you started working with Médecins Sans Frontières?
I’d worked in the oil industry for more than 30 years, firstly as an instrument maker, then as an electrician, mostly around process control systems. I had been a Médecins Sans Frontières donor for many years, and I volunteered to help out with an event. That’s where I discovered that Médecins Sans Frontières also needs logistics people, people who are not medical, which I didn’t know before. That put the idea in my head and I wondered if they’d take someone as bald and ugly as me!
You’re currently doing your fifth field placement. What keeps you coming back?
It’s just my nature to want to help other people and make a contribution, however little, and it is only a little. I love the work, I love being out there in the field, among the people I work with. Every project I’ve been on, it’s always been good company, a good group of expats and national staff. I quit my job in the oil industry last year, just to do this kind of work. I couldn’t really afford to retire, but I did anyway. I do miss my wife and daughter and my dog, but they’re happy for me to keep doing this for a while yet. A two or three month placement is not too long of a stretch.
What does the work involve?
My role can include wiring up staff quarters or clinic or working with medical equipment. Electrocution hazard is the biggest threat, so earth leakage protection is a high priority. First I go out to the project for at least a week to make an assessment of what’s there, what I need to do, and what equipment is needed. Then preferably I go back to the capital, to get the equipment that I need. Sometimes that includes tools, even simple things like an electrical drill. Lines of supply are always a problem. Getting the things I need is the biggest challenge in the field.
"It’s just my nature to want to help other people and make a contribution, however little, and it is only a little. I love the work, I love being out there in the field, among the people I work with. Every project I’ve been on, it’s always been good company, a good group of expats and national staff."
Do you train local people to build up their electrical knowledge?
Yes, probably half the work is trying to pass on my knowledge, because there’s never a full understanding of electricity generation, distribution and safety within the project. In Mogadishu I worked with a young local man, Abdifatah, throughout my placement. You don’t create an electrician in six weeks, but he now has a much better understanding of electrical protection, safety and distribution systems, and of the things he shouldn’t do. He’d never even seen a switchboard before, but I showed him how to wire it up, why we wire it etc. It was good to be able to pass on my knowledge and watch him develop. One of the jobs I insisted on completing with Abdifatah was to back up the oxygenerators in the intensive care unit. Every time the power went off, which was 3-4 times a day, the oxygenerators would switch off and medical staff would have to switch them back on. I asked the coordination team in Nairobi if we could get an UPS [uninterruptible power supply] so the oxygenerators would run continuously. That was approved, so I showed Abdifatah how to wire it into the ICU and look after it. Now he understands that it’s important that biomedical equipment, at the very least, keeps working when there’s a power failure. That was a big learning for him.
Would you recommend the work to electricians or other ‘tradies’?
The work is usually in countries with no electrical licences, no electrical safety, and anyone who calls themselves an electrician has just picked it up along the way. I would recommend the work for sure, but I’d suggest that people leave their expectations at home… working with Médecins Sans Frontières is not going to be anything like you’re used to. You’ll leave behind an electrical installation that would be illegal in Australia or Europe, but you just have to concentrate on making it as safe and reliable as you can with the limited equipment you have. When I leave, as long as it’s safe and it is protected then I’ve done my job.