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On The Frontlines: Emergency Comms Expert Mick Eccles

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From weathering mortar attacks in Somalia to navigating the conflict zone in Afghanistan, Mick Eccles' job training emergency radio operators is anything but boring. But there’s more than just radios to this bearded aid worker, whose casual manner and love of roses have won him friends around the world.

ROME—Thanks to his magnificent salt-and-pepper beard, Mick, 54, often stands out in a crowd. “When you look as I do, with no hair on youe head but a face full of it, it does attract attention,” he says.

Among aid circles, Mick’s beard is the stuff of legend. But it’s his casual manner, mastery of all things radio, and passion for growing roses that stick in the mind of the people who’ve worked with him.

Mick’s resume is as attention-grabbing as his looks. Before joining WFP in 2007, he spent six years working summers in some of the most frigid locales on Earth as a radio operator and trainer for the Australian Antarctic Division in support of scientific research.

Training the trainers

One of Mike's latest stints was in Afghanistan where he ran a “train the trainers” course for radio operators. In deep field operations like Afghanistan, where mobile connectivity can be unreliable, radio communications is the mainstay for humanitarian workers.

Enter FITTEST, which establishes communications systems where they have been disrupted by disasters such as wars, earthquakes or floods.

“When we learned that there were as many as 12,000 humanitarian workers in Afghanistan that needed training, we had to figure out how to reach as many as possible,” says Mick.

He re-designed the radio course so that his trainees could in turn train others for maximum impact. The training included local and international staff, as well as other UN agencies and NGOs, and targets radio operators, drivers and guards as the primary radio users.

Making friends

Mick says he was nervous about security when he first arrived in Afghanistan, but soon was immersed in the challenges of the work, as well as its unique beauty and culture. “It’s a stunning country. Its mountains and valleys are beautifully barren in some places, green in others. And everywhere there are kids playing with kites. They fill the sky.”

His easy manner has won him friends around the country, such as the gardener at the WFP guesthouse in Kabul, with whom Mick discovered a common interest.

“I grow roses in Australia and I used to watch him prune the roses and other shrubs with a steak knife,” Mick said. “So I came back from Australia with a pair of pruning shears and showed him ‘my way’ of pruning a rose bush.”

It was to no avail--the gardener was not going to trade in his steak knife. “So we sat and had tea, with me pondering how worlds apart we were. And yet, we shared this love of roses.”

After finishing up in Afghanistan, Mick moved onto Guinea where he ran a whirlwind cross-country course for radio operators, before returning to FITTEST headquarters in Dubai.

However, Afghanistan has stayed close to his heart, a fact his two-year-old grandaughter who calls him by the Dari word for grandpa--padar kalan--knows all too well.

“My family knew what I was doing in Afghanistan and of course they were worried,“ he said. “But I figured that if I could help the people there, even in a small way, then I had to do it. That was my contribution.”