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Mervin V. Gutierez/Caritas/CAFOD 2014;

Chapter 16.3 Preparing for disasters and emergencies

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Photo: Mervin V. Gutierez/Caritas/CAFOD 2014;

When a disaster strikes, a variety of goods and services are needed to deal with the crisis. Good preparedness includes having these resources in place or having established mechanisms to provide them rapidly when needed. The material resources required include search and rescue equipment, boats and vehicles (and fuel to run them), stockpiles of relief goods such as food, medicines, water purification and oral rehydration tablets, emergency shelter materials, blankets and cooking utensils. The range of potentially useful materials is very wide, and careful thought must be given to likely needs and how to supply them. Adequate funding must be available to pay for emergency response operations.

Delivery of essential relief supplies after major disasters causes major logistical and management problems. There are often delays and duplication, and aid does not always get to those who need it quickly enough. Inappropriate materials continue to be delivered to relief victims, including items that are not needed, are unsuited to local cultures and practices or are simply inferior (e.g. foodstuffs that people do not use or like, out-of-date or inessential medicines, equipment that is old, faulty or not adaptable), and items that are brought in from far away when they are readily available locally (such as blankets, tents, cooking utensils and foodstuffs). Off-the-shelf and often expensive prefabricated emergency shelters, designed with little or no understanding of the diversity of local cultures, practices and needs, have been heavily criticised since the 1970s, but still appear in many disasters.

All of these problems can be overcome, but this needs careful logistical planning and management, for which systems should be set up well in advance. New information technology has helped considerably here, and a great deal of work has gone into developing robust supply management systems. However, the capacity to use such systems needs to be built up through acquisition of technical resources and training.

Wherever possible, supplies and stockpiles of relief materials should be bought locally. They will be relatively cheap and appropriate. Local purchases also stimulate the local economy, although large-scale purchases of foodstuffs or other items in local markets for stockpiling are likely to push up prices, which may harm poor households.

The necessary human resources include trained emergency management staff and volunteers able to disseminate warnings, assist with evacuation, carry out emergency response activities, make needs assessments and manage the distribution of relief goods. The skills of medical personnel, the police, fire-fighters, engineers, architects, scientists, media professionals and many others will also be needed. Training courses should go beyond emergency managers, staff and volunteers to include all professional groups that are likely to be involved in responding to disasters.

Good disaster preparedness makes full use of the capacities of local authorities and communities. This requires delegating responsibilities to local leadership as appropriate, together with community mobilisation and participation in developing and testing emergency plans. Chapter 6 looks at community-managed DRR in general, and the principles and issues discussed there apply to disaster preparedness too.

A standard component of many community-level preparedness and response programmes is the establishment and training of disaster preparedness groups or committees, consisting of a cadre of volunteers who can be mobilised for emergencies. The groups’ tasks vary according to context, but typically include risk mapping, preparing contingency plans, planning evacuation routes and setting up safe places, construction or repair of local mitigation structures and infrastructure (e.g. embankments, bridges), raising community awareness of risks and preparedness measures, establishing local-level monitoring and warning systems, first aid, search and rescue and distribution of emergency relief. External agencies play an important role in establishing and training these groups, and providing them with emergency equipment such as spades, first aid kits, stretchers, radios, flashlights, boats and tents.

The effectiveness of these teams depends on the number and distribution of volunteers, their level of skills and commitment and the equipment and material resources at their disposal. Volunteer numbers will have to be built up over time, and developing their skills will also be a long-term process; short-term perspectives and over-ambitious targets should be avoided. This implies some level of continuing involvement and support by external organisations. However, the task of setting up a single volunteer group, giving basic training and providing equipment can be carried out within a relatively short period.

DRR agencies often create new structures for disaster preparedness and response, but unless the agency concerned is prepared to remain in the area and offer long-term support these may not be sustainable. In many cases it may be better to use established community structures as the foundation for disaster preparedness activities, because they will have a solid base of organisational skills, motivation and group solidarity. Many kinds of community structure can form a foundation for disaster preparedness work, including village development committees, peasants’ federations, savings and credit groups, slum dwellers’ associations and youth clubs. Working with such groups also helps to connect preparedness initiatives to other work on DRR and development.

The capacities of the community structure and its members, including their enthusiasm for the task, are the key criteria in identifying their suitability for disaster preparedness. Many volunteers and organisers are likely to be involved in community work already. Selection of team members should always involve consultation with the community, and in many instances it can be left to local groups. However, it is important not to overload groups and individuals with new responsibilities, and in most cases additional volunteers and organisers will have to be found.

Training of professionals and volunteers is essential. Refresher courses are also essential, although under-resourcing means that these happen less frequently than they ought to. Training should be given in a range of skills: not just specific technical skills such as first aid, search and rescue or warning dissemination and evacuation, but also more generic skills, such as management, communication, coordination and social mobilisation. Disaster preparedness manuals emphasise the importance of emergency rehearsals or simulations. No simulation can fully prepare teams for a real disaster, but rehearsals enable them to practice procedures and test their effectiveness. They often reveal weaknesses in the system that can be corrected.

Community-level training and preparedness can bring almost instant benefits where threats are imminent, although normally a longer period of training, organisation and mobilisation is needed. Agencies need to pay attention to the long-term sustainability of community preparedness organisations once external support comes to an end (see Case Study 16.2: Sustaining community preparedness) and, in the case of local-level programmes, to replication.

Case Study 16.2 Sustaining community preparedness

Between 1996 and 2002 the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, with technical and financial support from the German Red Cross, supported a community-based disaster preparedness programme in the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. The programme worked with communities in the vicinity of 30 cyclone shelters built as part of the Bangladesh Cyclone Preparedness Programme. Volunteer village disaster preparedness committees and squads were created, responsible for disseminating warnings, assisting evacuation, first aid, search and rescue, and shelter management. A disaster preparedness fund was established in each community to collect contributions from households for shelter maintenance and relief goods, accompanied by extensive public education and awareness raising.

An evaluation of the programme in 2009 found that it had been effective at household level, where there was good understanding of how to interpret early warning signals, what to do during a cyclone and how to protect livelihood assets. At a collective level achievements were less consistent. The village preparedness committees retained responsibility for shelter management and played a role in managing evacuations, but the disaster preparedness squads were less effective and many members had moved away. The condition of the shelters varied and some equipment had gone missing. People were unclear about the arrangements for shelter repair and maintenance, and whose responsibility this was. Most communities had stopped contributing to the disaster preparedness fund after the programme ended, and most of the groups set up to manage the fund and support household-level DRR and income-generating activities were inactive. On the other hand, the individuals who had been involved in the various groups continued to assume their former roles in an emergency. Many had formed links with other group members, and people continued to draw on these individual connections for support and advice. The shelters were valued by communities and women were more willing to go to shelters than previously.

The main lesson from the evaluation was that there should be more careful planning for phasing out and project handover in community preparedness projects if they are to be sustainable. Local organisations and groups should receive ongoing monitoring, guidance and refresher training to maintain their capacities and enthusiasm. Phasing out should be planned from the start, in a participatory way and with the involvement of all local stakeholders.

IFRC, Empowering Communities To Prepare for Cyclones (Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, undated), https://www.ifrc.org/Global/Publications/disasters/reducing_risks/194300-Empowering-communities-to-prepare-for-cyclones.pdf.