A generous smile

Published:  18 May, 2010

Jan Meertens, MD of the Netherlands-based International Centre for Emergency Techniques, highlights how the Sri Lankan Government has set up a genuinely integrated response system that can help save citizen’s lives in case of major international disasters.

Boxing Day 2004: 

At 8 a.m., South Asian time, local meteorological institutes register a heavy earthquake north of Sumatra, which inflicts a devastating Tsunami. Being an early riser and avid news consumer this surreal news reaches me in my home, in The Netherlands at around 7.00 a.m., my time.
Hours earlier, in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, local inhabitants and tourists are enjoying the sunrise, while in Banda Aceh in Indonesia, the Tsunami is ending the lives of tens of thousands. Elderly are taking a sea bath to rid themselves of the effect of the humid night, the little ones are playing in the surf under their mothers’ watchful eyes, while they prepare breakfast.
Thousands of kilometers to the west, in Kulub, Somali fishermen and their families are still asleep. Later that morning, as they wake up, a few of them will hear something on the radio about a huge wave that has supposedly washed over Indonesia and Sri Lanka. However, there is no way they can suspect that a series of waves is rolling towards Kulub from the Indian Ocean.
In the meantime and oblivious of what is about to happen in Kulub, everyone in Europe is horrified by the first television images showing the effects of the Tsunami. What was supposed to start as a wonderful Christmas day, soon turns out to be one of the darkest days in history of mankind.
The lack of information lead to another tragedy subsequently – un-coordinated relief. Even before the salty water had retreated, the victims were flooded with uncoordinated aid. In a compassionate knee-jerk reaction, many nations promised money, others promised and sent relief material and goods. Loads and loads of goods, which demonstrated again and again to a sympathetic world that rushed reactions frequently result in wasted resources.
Thankfully lessons are learnt and international relief aid, nowadays a serious industry, has recognised that spending all this money just for relief is not justifiable. Aid Agencies are desperately looking for a new strategy. The World Bank has already expressed it in figures: for every euro we invest in precautionary measures, including preparedness, we would save seven euro in reconstruction. Investing in these precautionary measures is the right approach. It is possible to prevent the “multiplier effect” of a disaster by investing in response capacity, in early warning, in communication, in self-sufficiency and in regional rescue systems.
In Pulicat, in Unawatuna, in Kulub, hundreds, probably thousands of lives could have been saved, if only people had been warned and if only emergency response services in the countries would have been better capacitated.
Ever since, the Sri Lankan Government has invested heavily in emergency response capacity. Through a 100 million dollar emergency response project, developed and coordinated by the International Centre for Emergency Techniques (ICET), in the Framework of the Government Policy document “A Road Map to a Safer Sri Lanka”, the country invested in early warning, emergency coordination, medical and fire and rescue systems. The fire and rescue component of the project included a Special Response Unit (SRU) in Colombo, an Emergency Response Training Centre (ERTC) and capacity building of 15 fire brigades throughout the country. The figures speak for themselves. Supplies of almost 100 fire and rescue vehicles, nearly 50 ambulances, 5 trailers and 5 containers with rescue, training and medical equipment. The early warning and communications component comprised of 75 warning towers, 10 district disaster management units and a emergency operations centre in Colombo. ICET provided continuous multi agency training of strategic, tactical and operational levels of emergency responders, crosscutting numerous cultural barriers and leading towards a genuinely integrated response system, including grass root community levels.
This is where the mother and her children on the Unawatuna Beach will benefit most. Vulnerable, yet better protected than ever. The generous smile the little girl in Pulicat, a survivor of the tsunami, gave me when she witnessed the drills we did with the villagers was my biggest reward. For ICET, she became symbolic for the Last Mile. Fortunately, governments, NGO’s and private institutions have now put their heads together to find solutions for Disaster Risk Reduction, the new aid buzzword. Investing in these precautionary measures is the right approach. It is possible to prevent the effects of a disaster getting unnecessarily out of hand. History has brought us to a point where change is essential. It is important to become better after each lesson that has to be learnt, of sharing these lessons and of creating an universal approach to emergency preparedness.
Disaster risk is increasingly of concern and efforts to reduce disaster risks must be systematically integrated into policies, plans and programs, in order to achieve sustainable development and poverty reduction, in line with development goals, including those contained in the United Nations Millennium Declaration.
The Last Mile is within reach, with a major role for fire and rescue services.

  • Operation Florian

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