Embracing culture of disaster preparedness


Plane Disaster

Disasters are sudden occurrences that leave anguish in their trail. Although undesirable, they happen anyway, most times without prior notice. They are either natural or man induced.

Wherever disasters occur, there are victims and losses to be counted. All over the world, women and children are usually at the shortest end of the stick in the face of fatalities.

This is why in the developed countries, disaster preparedness is accorded high premium in order to minimize damage or casualty levels. Even though there is a general perception that natural disasters are beyond human control, disasters caused by humans on the other hand are not. They are in fact preventable.

This is why Nigeria needs to invest more in the area of preventive techniques rather than into damage control. In the last decade, over one million Nigerians have died from disaster related causes.

Examples include air mishaps, inland waterways accidents, building collapse, fire accidents, flood, rainstorm, erosion, communal clashes, and insurgency. However, the number of death caused by either human-induced or natural disasters are in varying numbers.

For instance, last year alone, inland waterways accidents claimed well over 300 lives, including dozens of children who were either headed for school or on their return.

Unabated, a fresh inland waterways accident in Ojo, Lagos state recently snatched the lives of six young pupils. Their avoidable demise apparently had a lot to do with regulatory lapses by state or federal supervisory authorities. Equally disturbing is the high number of women farmers or traders who drown while on their way to or back from business arenas.

Most of these deaths have been linked to weak regulatory functions of the inland waterways sector, night travels, poor visibility and absence or non-utilization of authentic live jackets.

Need For Contingent Emergency Plan: No matter how plausible excuses put forward by faltering gatekeepers, either at the state or federal level, the frequency of ghastly accidents on the nation’s waterways deserve a contingent national emergency plan to salvage.

To assume that things would sort themselves out in the course of time is to pave the way for even more carnage on the nation’s inland waterways.

This is especially so on Lagos water channels and other trouble spots hidden away in the far hinterland. Beyond sustaining safety education for users of waterways, mandate agencies need to be on ground to supervise boarding processes at all times.

This is to ensure non-violation of carrying capacity of any canoe or vessel. Similarly, life jackets that do not meet international standards need not be in circulation as experience shows that passengers who wear so-called locally made life jackets sink with them in the event of mishap.

In the same vein, between 2005 till date, several ghastly plane crashes within Nigeria’s airspace have killed no fewer than 500 people, leaving many families, women and children in despair.

In very unforgettable tragedy, a plane carrying mainly student-passengers crashed at the Port-Harcourt airport, instantly charring innocent pupils who their parents and wards were waiting eagerly to receive back at the passenger lounge.

Although lightening was later identified as the cause of that crash which abruptly ended the lives and dreams of those pupils, the culpability of relevant air safety agency can hardly be wished away.

This is to say that the nation has to come to the understanding that safety of the airspace, no matter the weather condition must be top priority at all times. Experts charged with the responsibility of correctly reading the weather should no longer be caught napping. The level of safety consciousness among staff of the sector must be unequaled and genuine.

The Imperative For Constant Training of Staff: The implication of this is that airspace management staff together with those of other equally vital supporting agencies within the sector, should undergo constant training and retraining programs to better understand the ever changing aviation world.

For instance, duty specific training should be encouraged in order to produce personnel who understand the intricacies of their job just as much as they do sanctity of human lives.

Pilots too must be exposed to regular refresher programs to bring them up to speed on current modules for safe flying. When these are done regularly, chances are that their disaster preparedness level would increase, making it difficult for mishaps to occur.

Building Collapse: In the case of death from building collapse, an estimated 500 lives, including women and children are believed to have been lost over the last few years.

At different times, there have been reported cases of collapse of either completed or under-construction buildings, some of which had high number of occupants when they caved in.

Nevertheless, experience has shown that in most cases, the quicker the response time to emergency calls by safety teams, the higher the chances of survivors.

What this means is that emergency management institutions needed to find new ways of cutting off bottlenecks that stand in the way of rapid response to distress calls.

Flood: Regarding flood related death, in 2012 alone, over 400 people lost their lives in the heavy deluge that cut across six low-lying states in Nigeria, leaving nearly 3million persons internally displaced. In general, that flood scenario between July and October 2012 affected a total of 7,705,398 million Nigerians.

Although predictions by the Nigerian Meteorological Agency(NIMET) for this year is that there would be no flooding due to low rainfall, the lesson to learn from devastation caused by past flood is the need to heed early warnings.

A great majority of those hit by the flood were directly or indirectly guilty of neglecting threat alerts by NIMET but failed to vacate those flood prone spots. The extent of damage done would have been minimal, had early warnings been taking seriously.

Fire Disaster: In the case of fire, hundreds of lives have also been lost and property worth billions damaged over the last few years. Quite recently, about 70 people tragically died in the Onitsha tanker fire that occurred after the fuel laden truck lost control as a result of brake failure. This perhaps could have been prevented, had the vehicle undergone necessary checks to ensure safety.

In a recent study to value the cost of damage done by fire alone, the Lagos State government estimated that properties worth N54billion have been destroyed in the state due to fire incidents in the last three years.

The breakdown which came from the Lagos State Fire Safety Services, also revealed that cases of fire accidents were more rampant in 2012 than in 2013 and 2014 comparatively.

The report also indicated that majority of the fire cases were completely avoidable, had strong fire preventive habits been in place.

Communal Clashes and Insurgency: On number of deaths from communal clashes and insurgency, an estimated 16,000 people, including women and children are known to have died since commencement of intermittent hostilities.

No doubt, the National Emergency Management Agency(NEMA) and other stakeholders have been visible in efforts to provide short term succor to victims of various disasters, especially Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs). But stakeholders are of the view that Nigeria’s composite emergency plan should have graduated from providing mere palliatives to pursuing preventive measures on disasters.

Stakeholders View: One of such stakeholders who believe that Nigeria can improve on quality of disaster management and response time is Soji Adeniyi, a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer in the United Nations Children Fund(UNICEF) office.

Speaking at a two-day workshop on Emergencies, Ethical Reporting and Human Interest stories hosted in Kano by the Child Rights Information Bureau of the Federal Ministry of Information in conjunction with UNICEF, Adeniyi stressed that NEMA can and should upgrade on its form of intervention during emergencies.

He explained that though the law that set up NEMA structured it to perform essentially palliative duties, there was nevertheless a need to urgently reposition the duty line of the agency to include robust disaster preparedness program.

This he said would help to raise level of consciousness of people and participation in disaster preparedness and as a result a reduction in vulnerability level. “Emergencies are odd, unexpected situations that come with hazards, risks and vulnerability and require dynamic approaches to frontally tackle.

One understands that the National Emergency Management Agency(NEMA) is doing the best it can given the fact that it was originally set up to cushion the effect of emergency situations.

However we believe that emergency preparedness ought to be a lifestyle. It should graduate from distribution of relief kind of response to comprehensive preventive planning and advocacy.

It is not enough to distribute buckets, roofing sheets and so on, they are good no doubt, but we want to see strong disaster preparedness culture becoming a way of life”, he said. According to him, vulnerability issues arise when a people have limited capacity or none to overcome a hazardous circumstance. He stressed that hazards are either human or naturally induced.

He noted further that risk is likelihood of disaster happening to a particular group of people or place and can be estimated by frequency and severity of hazards.

He concluded that in all cases of hazards, risks, and disasters women and children are worst affected. “The susceptibility of people and things to be damaged by a hazard or group’s vulnerability depends on their capability to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a hazard.

In all of these, women and children are most vulnerable. According to Global Humanitarian Report 2009, over 70% of women and children are affected by conflicts and natural disasters”, he said. While doing an assessment of Nigeria’s emergency pattern, Adeniyi listed ethnic/communal tension, kidnapping, flood and political violence as some of the most commonly recurring situations.

He said that UNICEF feels strongly about emergency situations not only because they interrupt normal living but more importantly because of the way they impact on women and children, as well as the aged.

He stressed that UNICEF is guided by a global standard of preparedness at all times, which explains why that UN organ does emergency profiling, vulnerability and capacity assessment  even in the absence of an emergency situation. According to him, phases of intervention by the agency include preparedness, early recovery, response and continued response.

The UNICEF M&E official said that under the organization’s rule, response time to emergency situation is 72 hours. “Emergencies supplies are usually delivered to site under 72 hours.

But we have stakeholders who have been trained to immediately proceed to scene of emergency anywhere in the country. So this means that once an emergency occurs response is immediate.

And this is how it should be for the entire gamut. We believe that response to emergencies can be quicker and not only that, it can also be better planned for by increasing level of disaster preparedness among all stakeholders”, he said.

Since the Federal Fire Service is a first line respondent in the safety management schedule coordinated by NEMA in conjunction with other service units, The Guardian visited their Abuja head office to find out the organization’s challenges in rapidly responding to an emergency or distress call.

It has been reported in certain cases that fire fighters run out of water or lack access to emergency sites due to poor road networks among other challenges. Public Relations Officer of the Fire service, Elechi Collins explained their plight. “No doubt the Federal Fire Service undertakes a lot of responsibilities.

We make it a point of duty to respond immediately to any distress call, be it fire, building collapse and so on. Our response time is usually within three to five minutes in line with global best practices.

However, there are certain exceptions where we experience challenges in being able to respond rapidly as we should. Examples are traffic jam, issues of critical infrastructure, among others.

You have to contend with these constraints whether you like it or not. In this context, it takes a while before we are able to respond and provide professional assistance.

We have fully trained personnel who understand the rudiments of their job well”, he said According to Elechi, the Fire Service takes its line of duty seriously, which is premised on saving lives and property.

He explained that disasters such as building collapse and fire accidents have direct or indirect relationship with people and the economy in general, hence the importance attached to the safety duty discharged by Federal Fire Service.

He said although the Federal Fire Service is funded by the Federal Government, their is still a need for Public Private Partnership(PPP) to broaden partnership level with government as done in advanced countries.

Need For PPP: “We rely entirely on government funding, for infrastructure, training among other things. But, there is a limit to what government funds can do. Yes, the equipment that we have are provided by Government.

But we need to have corporate entities joining hands with government to increase funding by way of PPP. This is how its done abroad. So far, we are not receiving funding from anywhere else.

There is a need to establish additional fire stations all around so that we can increase response time. Proximity of fire stations to emergency points is very key to rapid response and to safety.

And this costs money”, Elechi said. He said although the Federal Fire Service gives oversight functions to the other tiers of the state and local government fire services, the challenges faced by state arms of the service often stem from poor funding by state governments, who he ought to increase level of funding to state fire services in order to be more effective.

Elechi Collins however said that the body runs a uniform safety objective which are passed down to states and local government Fire Service units nationwide.

Public Awareness: “We run a uniform safety plan with the states and local governments. They work in accordance with the safety curriculum provided them from the Federal Fire Service.

But I can tell you that we and the National Emergency Management Agency(NEMA) which is the coordinating body and other supporting organizations are on our toes to ensure safety through rapid response, but the issue is how prepared or how informed are the public about emergency preparedness.

Most of the time, the challenges we have are not with people who live in cities and probably are educated, the problem usually is with reaching out to victims who are located far away from the urban centers, sometimes with little or no access road”, he stated.

All efforts to get the views of the Director, Disaster Risk Reduction(DRR) in NEMA, Alhassan Nuhu were unsuccessful, even though recently at a public forum, he was quoted to have said that the National Emergency Management Agency was gradually evolving to undertaking disaster preparedness campaigns, hence the creation of a disaster risk reduction department.


Truck Disaster

Similarly, NEMA Zonal Coordinator, Abuja Operations office, Ishaya Chonoko said his unit intends to step up campaigns on preparedness level for both NEMA and the public.

He alluded to the 2015 forecast by NIMET, saying it would have far reaching impacts on the environment.”The 2015 forecast has impact on health, agriculture, water, and sanitation.

The focus should be to ascertain what each relevant department and agency has done with NIMET prediction. Special attention should be paid to the level of preparedness and response to NIMET predictions for this year”, he said.

The Nigerian Meteorological Agency in its prediction for 2015 said there would be seasonal rainfall and rainfall related disasters. Meanwhile at the two-day training on Emergency, Ethical and Human Interest Stories, Mr. Geofrey Njoku, UNICEF Communication specialist emphasized the need for journalists to always adhere to ethics of reporting.

He noted that ethics of journalism demands that journalists protect the sanctity of life of the girl-child, especially with regards to reporting them in the face of fatalities.

Their identities he said should be protected at all times in order for them not to fall victims of stigmatization. Also, Judith Giwa Amu, an Education Officer, UNICEF, gave an overview of the agency’s emergency intervention in the North East education system.

Mr. Buki Ponle, a Communication Consultant, also at the forum made presentations on the rules of reporting, especially human interest stories.

All in all, the onus now lies on NEMA to rally round legislators and other stakeholders in order to swiftly expand the disaster preparedness purview of the agency, in line with global best practices.

Nevertheless, the agency, and the Federal Fire Service among other critical players in the nation’s safety chain deserve commendation for their modest roles in salvaging the crisis thrown up by insurgency and the resulting displacement of large number of men, women and children. However, there is so much more the country can achieve when early preparedness to disasters are treated with utmost priority.

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