Home » Disaster Preparedness
Category Archives: Disaster Preparedness
The 2020 Olympics has been announced for Tokyo, one of the most earthquake prone megacities on the planet. The 2011 Sendai quake has also upped the chances of a big quake in the Tokyo area.
Plenty of Olympics have been held in disaster prone cities: Beijing, Athens, Los Angeles, Montreal, Mexico City and Rome all have high earthquake hazards, but fortunately a major natural disaster has not been visited on an Olympic Games. The 1908 games were originally going to be held in Rome, but were moved to London after the 1906 eruption of Mt Vesuvius led to financial pressures on the Italian Government. The worst olympics disaster in history was the terrorist attack on the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, and with billion dollar security budgets terrorism has been foremost in the minds of games’ organisers in recent years.
Although risk management has become a new priority for the IOC, assessment of disaster and emergency preparedness, particularly for natural disasters appears to be brief.
With the influx of athletes, officials and visitors Japan will need to put in place special measures to ensure that they are as prepared as the rest of the population, upgrade emergency response units and ensure that construction for the games is specially hardened – and that’s just for starters. A disaster ready games will be expensive and for a nation already faced with the recovery bill of the 2011 quake and tsunami and the clean-up of Fukushima it will be difficult for it to face up to the challenge. But the costs of not being prepared can be far greater.
Today the Federal Government released a new Defence White Paper. Given all the discussion about the use of the ADF in disaster operations I thought I’d given it a review from a disaster and humanitarian response perspective.
The new paper contains 26 references to disaster operations, down from 31 references in the 2009 White Paper.
After every emergency and whenever the media, and many emergency managers, are talking about emergency service response the claim of ’emergency services are under increasing demand’ is oft repeated. It’s very tempting to believe that there is an increasing demand on emergency services, with the increased resources that such a trend can bring, but what do the numbers say.
- The new State Emergency Management Plan (EMPlan) has been published. Consistent with recent changes to the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act it expands the roles of functional areas and names agency responsibilities across PPRR. It’s also a much shorter document clocking it at 35 pages excluding annexes (79 with) versus 51 pages in the old DISPLAN (98 with annexes).
- A new guide: Government, you and what to do – A Guide to Natural Disasters in NSW, which contains comprehensive information about natural disasters in NSW; what individuals, families and businesses can do before, during, and after them; and what risk management activities the Government is undertaking. It also includes handy guides, checklists, social media links and other useful information.
For those in emergency management in NSW – good luck for tomorrow. Anyone wanting to find good information here’s a couple of recommendations:
- Head to the NSW RFS Website, Facebook Page or follow them on Twitter. You can also download the NSW version of the Firesnearme app for iPhone and Android.
- Tune in to ABC Radio (frequency list here) or follow @ABCemergency on Twitter.
- Don’t forget to look out the window.
And if you’re looking to help out with the Tasmanian Bush Fires Appeal go to the Red Cross website.
*Some media sources are pegging it as the worst fire danger day on record for the state. I’m not so sure. It will probably be the worst for at least 10-20 years, but I’m not sure it would eclipse the fire danger (although this was before the FFDI index was even invented) during the heatwave of 1939 (which set many of the individual temperature records in NSW).
The World Conference On International Telecommunications that is just finishing up in Dubai, has attracted most attention for proposals for greater internet regulation. But the conference and the International Telecommunications Union looks after many things besides the internet.
Today a piece appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald calling for a specialist disaster response capacity to be established in central city hospitals across Australia.
Much of the morbidity and mortality associated with disasters comes not from the impact of the disaster itself, but from avoidable infections associated with damaged infrastructure and poor hygiene in the aftermath of a disaster.
I will talk about first aid in a later post, but here the old adage “prevention is better than cure” is much more important.
Sanitation boils down to two things: staying clean and waste disposal.
The most important thing to keep clean are you hands, most pathogens are spread by hands coming into contact with your face. In the past this meant washing with soap and water, which may be scarce or contaminated in a disaster.
Now with the advent of hand sanitiser, soap becomes less of a necessity. Some studies have even shown that it is more effective than hand washing with soap. Hand sanitiser should be the number 1 sanitation item in your Go Bag.
Make sure that you use a product that contains at least 60% alcohol for maximum effectiveness. However if your hands are covered in dirt or grime that will compromise the effectiveness of the hand sanitiser, so you will need to find a water source and use soap to clean them. It is a good idea to use hand sanitiser afterwards. To wash your hands liquid soap is a good addition to your Go Bag.
In between cleaning your hands make sure you avoid touching your face and mouth or any open wounds. Try and keep your clothes, particularly socks and underwear as clean and dry as possible.
If you need them make sure you keep a decent supply of sanitary pads in your Go Bag – these also make pretty good wound dressings.
You can’t be sure that you will be able to find a functioning toilet, the sewerage or water supply may have failed or buildings may be unsafe to enter. You may have to improvise a toilet.
The most portable are plastic bags that you can do your business in and then dispose of away from your shelter. There are a number of purpose designed products on the market such as the PeePoo bag, but any plastic bag will do in an emergency situation. Make sure you have a decent supply of these and toilet paper in your Go Bag.
Other options include lining an existing toilet with a larger plastic bag or using a bucket in a similar fashion. Keeping some bleach on hand can help disinfect and control odours.
If you end up having to shelter for a lengthier time in place without an operational sewerage system it may make better sense to dig a latrine or pit for defecation, make sure you line these with plastic though so contamination doesn’t leach into water supplies.
One of the big drawcards for me to disaster management is that it is such an interdisciplinary career. It brings together expertise in economics, geography, psychology, sociology, geophysics, meteorology, climate science, technology, business management, information technology, public policy, statistics, anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, culture and ethnography, engineering, environmental science, health, education, agriculture and more.
In a field that draws on so many areas of knowledge, research is critically important. This includes research that may not immediately be identified to have an emergency management impact.
As emergency management has so much knowledge to draw on I often ask myself why there isn’t a stronger engagement between practitioners and researchers in the field.
Conferences seem to be dominated by consultants and professional speakers (often those leaders who presided over emergency management disasters). Governments and NGOs in these times of austerity are cutting budgets and emergency management organisations aren’t immune. In any budget cuts, research is often the first to go.
Part of the problem is that large parts of academia, including many emergency management trade journals are walled off behind expensive paywalls. This problem is particularly acute for those working in developing countries who don’t have alternative means of access to this knowledge. Subsidised journals like the Australian Journal of Emergency Management are extremely important, as they enable any emergency manager to access high quality research and researchers to reach a broad emergency management audience.
Yet few publications see emergency management practitioners and researchers collaborating on papers, or indeed researching areas of interest to local practitioners.
The problem extends beyond that though. Emergency management lacks the culture of critical thinking common to the sciences. This tends to lead to an over-reliance on good ideas, historical practice and ‘common-sense’ which may in reality turn out to be ineffective or worse, actually harmful.
The Triangle of Life: Where’s the evidence?
In a place like Kathmandu earthquakes are never too far away as a discussion topic. In a couple of different conversations the ‘triangle of life’ idea has come up. This concept basically states that you should seek shelter next to heavy objects in an earthquake, as this will be where the survival spots are if the building collapses. I always thought that the concept had some utility in developing countries, without the enforcement of building codes in places like the US and Japan.
The concept first surfaced in an email chain letter (and continues to do the rounds, with elements of it popping up in this recent youtube video) authored by self-proclaimed rescue expert Doug Copp. The triangle of life idea has been thoroughly refuted by every government emergency management agency and experienced NGO I’ve been able to find. Some of the advice in the email is consistent with that of most earthquake preparedness experts, however most of it and especially the triangle of life are absolute nonsense. The credibility of the author is also highly questionable.
But what does the evidence say?
The Triangle of Life has an intrinsic appeal to some urban search and rescue practitioners who focus on rescuing people from collapsed structures. (On the other hand plenty have put together excellent rebuttals). However the people that these professionals rescue are not typical survivors. Most will either not be trapped or be rescued by other survivors using hands and basic tools.
By the time heavy Urban Search and Rescue teams arrive on the scene very few survivors will be found. Those that are found by these rescuers will be in voids within the collapsed structures – aka triangles of life.
This produces a sampling bias, the people in these voids are not representative of the total population of survivors.
The only experimental evidence for triangle of life came from an exercise in Turkey, which Copp was involved with (Unfortunately the links to all the primary source material on this exercise are broken). Dummies were placed within a structure, which was then collapsed. They found that the dummies placed in ‘duck, cover, hold’ positions were crushed and those placed in ‘triangle of life’ positions were not. Now by collapsed I mean demolished with conventional demolition techniques. Unfortunately this does not simulate how buildings fail in earthquakes, so little can be drawn from the results.
The other aspect of a controlled collapse is that the voids are much more predictable. Now I’m not suggesting that the ‘experimenters’ deliberately placed the dummies in these locations but subconsciously the experimenter effect could have come into play.
So the only piece of evidence for this advice is seriously flawed at best. The ‘triangle of life’ is already on shaky ground.
The other problem with this concept is that as an earthquake survival strategy the triangle of life will only protect you in the event of a building collapse. Odds are a total structural collapse will very likely ruin your day, despite what the theory claims. Any survival strategy will only increase your chances of survival, not guarantee it, in the event of a building collapse.
But what about if your building doesn’t collapse?
Most of the injuries (and some of the deaths) from an earthquake are caused by non-structural items such as bookcases, shelves, cabinets and the items on them. Many injuries are also caused by people fleeing (often without shoes) and cutting themselves on broken glass and other falling debris. This is precisely what the ‘duck, cover, hold’ strategy is aimed at avoiding.
For example in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake most fatalities were caused by building collapse, most injuries by falling over and being hit by falling objects. There were about 4 times more injuries than fatalities.
Researchers in Iran calculated that for a large earthquake there the number of people in areas exposed to falling debris (and not building collapse) would be 12,000 times the number of people exposed to building collapse. (Unfortunately this is the only scholarly article that I’ve found that directly compares ‘duck, cover, hold’ with ‘triangle of life’.)
So when the shaking starts, odds are that ‘duck, cover, hold’ will be the most appropriate strategy.
But what about community education? Could ‘triangle of life’ be explained too,allowing people to choose their own strategy?
Trying to communicate anything about earthquake preparedness is difficult enough. You could take a mixed strategy, that attempted to explain where the limited applicability of the triangle of life might be useful. However, this would only end up confusing most of the target audience, who may end up doing nothing or panicking. To reach the broadest audience any disaster preparedness message needs to be simple and the advice that will be applicable to the largest number of people is ‘duck, cover, hold’.
There’s no evidence to suggest that the triangle of life is any better than chance.
Which brings me back to my initial discussion:
Many career paths into disaster management don’t provide a strong background in research methods or critical thinking skills. When you combine this with the poor engagement between researchers and disaster managers and the difficulty in accessing scholarly publications its no wonder that rumours like the triangle of life to continue to circulate, even among disaster management professionals.
Research accessibility, critical thinking skills and cross sector engagement all need to be addressed to ensure disaster management is evidence based and thus successful.
Now you’ve got enough water and some shelter it’s time to turn your mind to your stomach. Whilst the average adult can survive more than a week without food they won’t be functioning too well.
Food will keep you energised, help stop you from getting sick and most importantly boost your morale.
For your go bag food needs to satisfy a few requirements:
Weight – You’re going to be lugging it around, so tinned food is out. You need to go for food that is light and in lightweight packaging.
Energy – To keep you going you’re going to want to eat small amounts often. So nutritious, energy dense food is important.
Water – You’re already using your limited supply for drinking so you don’t want to be re-hydrating food, or cooking something. By the same token foods that are very dry or salty will make you thirsty, putting further strain on your water supplies.
Shelf life – You don’t expect to be needing your go bag on a regular basis, so your food needs to last a while. At least six months is a good length (change it when you do your smoke detectors and other emergency kit maintenance). Don’t forget that there’s a difference between the various forms of labelling “best before” dates.
Taste – At the end of the day though you want food you like. This will boost your spirits and make it easier to rotate your stash so it doesn’t go stale.
All these factors limit your options pretty significantly. Think about packing Muesli/Granola bars, trail mix (aka scroggin), nuts (unsalted), some chocolate, dried fruit, some crackers and spread (in a tube or plastic container) and other pre-packed snacks. I know some folk who swear by tubes of sweetened condensed milk, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Others will get some army rations/MREs, but these aren’t necessarily terribly tasty. Just make sure there’s some variety.
As for the amount there isn’t really any rule of thumb. You probably should have enough to stretch out over 2-3 days, but this may not be practical depending on what else you have in your go bag and how much weight you’re willing to carry.
Do you have a favourite food for your go bag? Leave a note in the comments and I’ll add it to the post.