Looking at the FITTEST 20th anniversary photobook: Peter Casier (centre) and WFP staff members Image Credit: WFP

Dubai: The UN World Food Programme (WFP) on Sunday celebrated one of its team of unsung heroes’ 20 years of selfless service for being the first on the scene during natural disasters, conflicts, wars to facilitate delivery of aid.

The team, called Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team or FITTEST, is the first group of people deployed during emergencies to set up critical communication lines to so aid could be delivered.

Rehan Asad, WFP Chief of Staff, said FITTEST’s role in the field is crucial.

“Communication is at the heart of the response in any emergency. Before any support starts, it’s critical to set up communication lines first. FITTEST, to me, is an absolute critical part of our emergency response,” Asad said during the celebration at the International Humanitarian City (IHC).

Over the last two decades, the WFP FITTEST team has been deployed to some of the world’s most dangerous complex conflicts and provided humanitarians and affected populations with life-saving communications through more than 1,500 missions in more than 130 countries.

“We can’t move a kilogram of food without having telecommunication, without being able to communicate or talk to each other. We move 3.5 billion tonnes of food every year. We distribution 15 billion rations of food per year. So telecommunications is essential,” Mageed Yahya, WFP Country Director, said.

But all of this couldn’t be possible without the support of WFP’s partners, especially the UAE.

“The UAE is one of the biggest donors of WFP. Thank you for the partnership. Dubai, UAE, has been a great partner in hosting us first. We enjoy these offices, these warehouses free of charge. We don’t pay a single penny for that. Not only that, when there’s an emergency somewhere, planes are made available for us in a matter of hours no matter where, be it Haiti, in Indonesia, in the Philippines. Thank you, IHC, for that.”

Since disasters strike without warning, having responders such as the FITTEST team who are always ready to fly and serve is important. Some of them were recognised in the ceremony like Michael Dirksen who received the FITTEST Resilience Award.

Dirksen, senior ICT emergency coordinator of FITTEST, was injured in 2003 while deployed in Baghdad when a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives to the UN headquarters that killed 22 humanitarians.

Described as someone who wouldn’t hesitate to go get deployed and get dirty, Dirksen has “worked though very very tough times”. He has served in 50 countries including Peru, Mongolia, Burundi and Sudan.

Also recognised for his contribution was Peter Casier who received the FITTEST Award of Honour and Dane Novarlic with the FITTEST Spirit Award.

The FITTEST Botan Ali Award, meanwhile, was given to the whole FITTEST team in honour of Botan Ali Al Hayawi who was among the five WFP staff who died after a suicide attack on the WFP headquarters in Islamabad in 2009. Ali’s wife and two kids were also recognised during the event.