Oct 25, 2021 07:34 AM

Cover Story: Blue Sky, Please Send Help!

A week after a devastating flood hit the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou July 20, Zhang Yong received a call from Xinxiang’s flood control commanding office in Henan province asking for help in conducting rescues.

Zhang is the founder and head of Beijing Blue Sky Rescue, part of China’s largest nonprofit civil rescue organization. As heavy rains moved north from the provincial capital city of Zhengzhou, Weihui, a small city by the Yellow River with 500,000 residents, was flooded. The commanding office asked Zhang to send his whole team of 2,000 to Weihui “as soon as possible.”

Within four days, civilian rescuers together with firefighters and the military evacuated 200,000 people from Weihui.

Zhang estimated that more than 1,000 civilian rescue teams participated in the Henan flood recue, the largest response since the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. In addition to evacuating people, volunteers also helped in the distribution of supplies and epidemic prevention efforts.

A civilian force first played a key role in rescue and relief in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province that killed nearly 70,000 people. Since then, civilian rescue teams have sprung up across China. As of May, there were more than 1,700 nongovernment emergency response teams with more than 600,000 volunteers nationwide engaged in disaster prevention, rescue and relief, according to the Ministry of Emergency Management.

Since its founding in 2008, Blue Sky has developed into a nationwide network of nearly 800 licensed rescue teams in 31 provinces with more than 50,000 registered volunteers. Over the years, a lack of unified professional standards, a shortage of external funding and financial sustainability and weak administrative capacity have been obstacles to its growth. As part of a national emergency management system overhaul with the establishment of the Ministry of Emergency Management in 2008, the role of civilian public relief organizations and their survival and development face a transition. As one of the most influential brands in the field, Blue Sky offers a significant point of reference based on its development and challenges.

Blue Sky dispatched more than 360 teams to the Henan province flood rescue. More than 3,000 volunteers participated, the largest number since its inception. In the first 10 days of the disaster, Blue Sky’s hotlines received more than 15,000 emergency calls.

High equipment costs and lack of unified standards mean varied capabilities among different rescue teams. Some members from temporarily formed volunteer rescue teams didn’t load their boats properly or wear life jackets with sufficient flotation, which can pose serious safety risks, Caixin reporters saw during the Henan flood relief. Zhang said flood rescues require good boating skills and experience to avoid capsizing.

Civilian emergency response forces are still in a chaotic growth stage, Li Yanzhao, head of the Qingdao Red Cross Blue Sky Rescue Team, told officials at the Ministry of Emergency Management. Development since the Wenchuan earthquake addressed the quantity problem, but not the quality problem, Li said.

In the flooding in Henan province, civilian rescuers made significant contributions, but there are still many coordination problems between them and government efforts and among different civilian rescue teams, Li said. For example, rescuers and materials were stockpiled in some places, while at others sites no rescuers appeared for a long time. Repeated rescue requests and information barriers reduced critical rescue efficiency, he said.

“Lack of professionalism has costs, either in materials or in people’s lives,” Li said.

Blue Sky rescuers load inflated boats on vehicles in the Zhengzhou flood rescue July 23, 2021.

From outdoor rescue to disaster rescue

In 2005 following several incidents including the death of a hiker due to lack of emergency rescue, former SWAT police officer Zhang and a group of outdoor enthusiasts founded Lvye Rescue Team, affiliated with the outdoor activity-sharing platform Lvye. The team offered outdoor rescue, hiking trail sign setup and outdoor skill training. It became the predecessor of Blue Sky.

On May 12, 2008, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Wenchuan, a mountainous region in south-central China. Seeing TV news of 50,000 people missing in a village inaccessible by rescuers, Zhang and his team discussed what they could do to help. As frequent hikers familiar with mountainous terrain, they believed they could get into the area to help officials by gathering information on rescue needs.

Zhang and two other members took a flight to Chengdu, the closest city with an airport to Wenchuan. On the flight, the three were interviewed by a TV reporter. Soon volunteers contacted them to join the force after seeing them on the news. Many later became founders of local Blue Sky branches across the country.

More than 1.4 million volunteers participated in the Wenchuan rescue. Because of their vigorous contributions, 2008 became known as the “year of volunteering” in China. These volunteers later created many civilian rescue organizations across the country.

However, showing up at earthquake sites armed only with the desire to help but without training and equipment, many volunteers found themselves clueless as to what to do. At that time, China had an official rescue team of only about 200 members capable of conducting search and rescue operations in collapsed buildings. Even firefighters and police didn’t have the professional equipment and skills for rescues in urban disasters.

Holding a shovel, Zhang could hear the cries for help dying down beneath reinforced concrete rubble. Some of those who were dug out ended up losing their lives because rescuers and volunteer doctors didn’t know enough about crush syndrome, one of the most frequent causes of death for those buried in an earthquake.

Zhang said he realized that reliance only on outdoor rescue experience was far from enough and came up with the idea of promoting a complete civilian emergency response system.

Zhang shared his vision with another volunteer he met in Wenchuan. Qiu Lili is founder of Angle Mom Charity Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing aid to poor children with thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder characterized by a lack of hemoglobin. As her foundation often works with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, Qiu envisioned making use of the Red Cross’s rescue system and integrating models of the National Rescue Team and international equivalents to create China’s own civilian humanitarian rescue organization with international influence.

Six months after the 2008 earthquake, Lvye Rescue Team separated from its affiliated outdoor activity platform in an attempt to become a pure nonprofit organization. Choosing between “Green Mountain” and “Blue Sky” for a name, co-founder Zhang Chen said his father settled on “Blue Sky” based on theories in the ancient Chinese classic Yijing.

 Blue Sky rescuers evacuate stranded residents from a building in the Zhengzhou flood July 22, 2021.

From loose organization to formal discipline

The first priority for the new team was to establish discipline, training and standards, starting with uniforms. One model Zhang Yong wanted to copy was Hong Kong’s Civil Aid Service, a uniformed, disciplined, government-financed team formed in 1952 to help to relieve pressure on the government’s full-time emergency forces.

Another urgent problem was members’ credentials. Without an official letter from a supervising organization, members couldn’t get into many disaster sites, Qiu said. Blue Sky approached the Beijing Red Cross, which in 2009 officially authorized Blue Sky as an auxiliary emergency response team of the organization. The next year, the team registered as Beijing Red Cross Blue Sky Rescue, becoming China’s first registered civilian rescue team. Zhang Yong quit his job at a patent law firm and became full-time leader of the team.

On April 20, 2013, a magnitude7.0 earthquake struck Ya’an, Sichuan province. Eight minutes after the quake, Blue Sky went into action. More than 300 members from several branches rushed to the earthquake area. This was the organization’s first nationwide coordinated operation. It began to report to and receive tasks from local relief authorities.

This time, Blue Sky’s rescuers were better equipped with positioning communications gear so they could send information back to headquarters quickly and share disaster relief maps complied at headquarters, founding member Zhang Qingchen said in an interview.

While transporting supplies to an affected village, Li Wenyang and other Blue Sky members found an 80-year-old victim with fractured sternum. They immediately cut bamboo and made a simple stretcher to carry the person down the mountain for transfer to the official rescue force. The person became the first survivor to be found within the so-called 72-hour golden window for discovering survivors in the earthquake.

Even though major disaster rescues can give volunteers a stronger sense of achievement, what they face more often are situations such as missing elderly or drowning children, as well as routine activities such as training and public education on disaster response.

A Blue Sky volunteer is required to have more than 100 hours of training, pass theory and physical tests and obtain a first-aid certificate and radio license before becoming a preparatory team member, qualified to wear a uniform and participate in rescue operations. If the member has less than 200 hours of service each year, he or she will lose the member qualification.

Having witnessed people’s lack of knowledge on disaster prevention, Zhang Yong said he realized prevention before a crisis is more important than post-disaster relief. Blue Sky thus started providing training to the public and participating in the May 12 national day for disaster prevention and relief campaigns each year.

In disasters, people can never all be saved by rescuers, and more rely on self-help and mutual rescue, Blue Sky members often tell people. About 70,000 people were saved through self-help and mutual rescue in the Wenchuan earthquake among the 87,000 who were saved, experts at China Earthquake Emergency Search and Rescue Center found.

“When I first joined the rescue team, I was excited every time we received a call for help,” Blue Sky’s Li said. “I felt like I was Superman or Spiderman. But now I don’t want that kind of rescue anymore, because it means someone is in danger, and maybe a family is broken.”

Civilian rescue organizations should train a group of professional rescuers, and at the same time disseminate emergency safety knowledge to the whole society to improve their awareness of disaster prevention, Zhang Yong said.

“If you can save yourself in danger or help others around you, Blue Sky then achieves its social value,” Zhang Yong said.

In regions where natural disasters are rare, Blue Sky’s local teams tend to devote more time to public training. Fu Yu, founder of Inner Mongolia Blue Sky Rescue Association, said his team conducts only a limited number of actual rescues, but it organizes more than 100 community emergency response training activities every year. When civilian groups can show the capability to provide such services, governments will trust them and back the services, Fu said.

Funding struggle

For a volunteer organization’s sustainable operation and development, funding is the key. Blue Sky has vowed not to provide any paid services or rescue projects to the public.

Blue Sky’s funding mainly comes from social donations, fees from foundations to perform cooperative disaster relief and government procurement to provide training programs. But these revenues are not enough to cover the organization’s administrative expenses, equipment purchases and maintenance, the cost of rescue operations and routine activities. Volunteers often have to contribute themselves.

In the Henan flood rescue, sharp objects such as fences, road barriers and bicycles often pierced the inflated boats used to transport people. More than 100 Blue Sky rescue boats were damaged, or a third of its inventory, Zhang Yong estimated. A boat costs 4,000–5,000 yuan ($630–$780) and an engine more than 10,000 yuan. The boats were bought with money out of volunteers’ own pockets.

When Li Wenyang joined Blue Sky in 2009, he made 1,300 yuan a month as a security guard and waiter. He had to pay for equipment himself. Taking leave to participate in rescue and training also hurt his income. Like Li, most volunteers in Blue Sky and other civilian rescue teams have full-time jobs and have to contribute their time, energy and money.

Self-funded rescue is the biggest cause of volunteer loss, Zhang Yong said. Even though many teams collaborate with local police and fire departments on rescue missions, volunteers often cover their own travel expenses, accommodations and supplies. Once a Blue Sky member was driving his own vehicle to a rescue site and was stuck in traffic. When the police called urging him to hurry up, he explained that he would be fined if he took the emergency lane as his car was not an authorized emergency response vehicle.

Some teams work with foundations to undertake tasks such as supply distribution during disaster relief and receive certain fees. But foundations usually rely on social donations after a disaster happens, meaning the funds can be used only for one particular disaster relief mission, while civilian rescue teams need recurring funding to maintain training and operation, said Hao Nan, founder of Zhuoming Info Aid and chairman of the earthquake emergency response and rescue commission at China Association for Disaster Prevention.

“People donate money only after a disaster happens, but can you form a rescue team immediately after a disaster happens?” Hao said.

Government procurement of services, including training in disaster prevention and community emergency response education, is another main source of funding for civilian rescue teams. But the funding has strict audit requirements. The use of such targeted funds is usually limited to purchasing training tools, emergency kits and printed materials. The money can’t meet the needs of rescue teams in buying insurance for members and equipment, Zhang said.

Some civilian rescue teams accept sponsorship from private businesses. For example, some would allow printing business names on their equipment. But Zhang Yong insists that Blue Sky would never accept donations with strings attached.

“It would be better for civil organization to be cleaner, at least to have less conflict, as they affect development,” Zhang said. Volunteers should join the group based on a desire to help others and in exchange derive happiness from it, he said.

“If someone provides funds, equipment and uniforms, does this sound more like a business?” Zhang said. “Volunteers will be less motivated to do this.”

Not everyone in the organization agrees with Zhang. Some leaders said they hoped Blue Sky could generate income from projects, training programs and event security services to purchase equipment so volunteers need only to devote their time and skills, but that suggestion was denied by Zhang. The ideological difference and interpersonal conflicts have led some key members to leave Blue Sky and join other teams or set up new organizations operating under different models.

In 2014, some veterans left Blue Sky and founded Beijing Green Boat Emergency Rescue Promotion Center. Now the organization has 15 licensed teams across the country. Green Boat aims to achieve sustainable development through a range of safety skill and knowledge training, event security services, government procurement services and other projects. It has participated in more than 100 rescues in the past seven years and has never let volunteers conduct recues at their own expense, leader Li Feng said.

But Green Boat faces similar challenges as Blue Sky. Volunteers often join in the hope of conducting real rescues, but instead they have to provide community training most of the time, making them think that the rescue team is no different from any other social organization. The amount of government procurement has also decreased in recent years. During the Henan flood rescue, Green Boat received 200,000 to 300,000 yuan of fees from collaborating foundations.

“We used the money to buy equipment on the scene,” Li said.

Loose organization vs. unified actions

Expansion and division are inevitable for any organization that forms based on ideals. In the transition from individuals to a standardized organization, civilian rescue teams like Blue Sky always face a two-way choice.

Many local Blue Sky rescue teams were established for particular rescue missions. As the rescue operation requires highly centralized collaboration, a loose alliance of local teams linked by brotherhood may lead to inconsistent ideas and uneven abilities, Zhang Yong said.

Zhang tried to standardize the organization through a convention. In 2014, Blue Sky’s branch teams signed an agreement switching from a loose structure to brand license model. All licensed branch teams need to adopt the same uniforms, equipment, training and review and follow centralized command and coordination in major rescue missions.

Personnel, funding and properties are still managed by each team, and there is no vertical management, Zhang Yong said.

However, a brand license cannot solve all the management problems. For example, Blue Sky requires that a leader of a new team must have served in an existing team for at least two years. But with the rapid expansion, some local teams haven’t followed the rule strictly, said Lu Fei, head of the Sichuan Blue Sky Rescue Team.

Competition among different organizations is another reason behind easing requirements. Blue Sky requires that a volunteer has to serve at least two years before becoming eligible to wear the team’s uniform, while some other rescue teams may require only six months of service, a Blue Sky license supervisor said. Stricter requirements may result in the loss of volunteers, and the brand owner’s requirement serves only as a suggestion without binding force, the supervisor said.

In a theory and physical review of team members this year, Jiangsu Blue Sky Rescue Team found that fewer than 50% of members passed, “worse than expected,” said supervisor Zhang Yupu. Some team leaders suggested more training for unqualified members, but the members were reluctant to cooperate, Zhang said. In volunteer organizations, even if there are routine training requirements, it is still difficult to have the same binding force on members as companies on employees.

Zhang Yong said he also realized the potential danger from expansion with loose management. In a post on a social network in January, he acknowledged that while Blue Sky’s licensed teams are growing, the overall quality is declining, appearing as poor physical fitness and lack of basic first aid skills by some members.

“These were the basic requirements for ordinary volunteers when we built the team more than a decade ago,” Zhang said.

Systematic training requires long-term and stable investment of funds and time and also involves the cost of venues and personnel, but the training and review are limited by lack of funding, Zhang told Caixin.

In some regions with strong government support, some individuals have set up fake Blue Sky rescue teams to receive funds from local governments. Zhang said he estimated there are more than 100 such counterfeit teams across the country, but Blue Sky doesn’t have the resources to crack down on them one by one.

“It takes a lot of effort to build a public welfare brand,” he said. “But it can be quickly undermined.”

Contact reporter Denise Jia ( and editor Bob Simison (

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