Imperative of a National Emergency Response Plan

16 Nov 2012

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Heavy flooding around the country and its aftermath – sorrow, tears and confusion – has exposed Nigeria as having at best, a near-zero preparedness to deal with emergencies of significant regional or national  impact. Coordination of response action and support to victims has been sloppy, to say the least. What has made the headlines in most cases is the orchestrated visit by government officials and media announcements of monies spent or voted to deal with the flooding.

In addition to loss of several lives, there is palpable fear of a possible epidemic in the areas affected by the flood. And most likely, severe food shortages will be experienced. Sadly, more rain and flooding are very likely before the season abates.
Last year, Nigeria experienced a number of tragic albeit avoidable emergency incidents. The most tragic and widely reported (by the media) include the Dana plane crash of June 2012, the Boko Haram attack on three churches in Kaduna in which 26 were killed and 100 injured, the petrol tanker explosion at Okogbe in Ahoada, Rivers State, which resulted in the death of about 200 people and the pipeline explosion in Arepo, Ogun State.

From the way the incidents were managed, it is obvious we lack national capacity to respond to emergencies. Response to each of the emergency situations was slow and inadequate. The Dana plane crash is a classical example of lack of preparedness or readiness to deal with calamitous situations. Other than Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola who took charge by showing leadership and providing a rallying point for government, there is probably no other  example of doing it right.  A few lives may have been saved if the elements of national emergency response were in place, rehearsed and activated in good time.
The world over, there are known critical elements of an effective emergency response plan - leadership, structure, competent people, procedure and culture.

In an emergency situation, response time is critical and effective leadership is of utmost importance. If the right type of decision is not taken and enforced quickly, the crisis will gain the upper hand, causing distress, sometimes death, injury or economic calamity.
There is need for a credible organisational structure designed to ensure the safety and welfare of the public, and the preservation of life, property, and the environment.

A critical factor when dealing with an emergency is the skill and competence of the people who manage them as the crisis usually presents unique and immediate challenges to leaders and their teams.
An emergency procedure is a plan of action to be carried out in a certain order in response to an emergency.
Any effective emergency response plan must include promoting a culture of safety since emergencies, disasters, accidents, injuries, and crimes can occur without warning at any time.

Disasters in other geographies were managed in such a way that the damage is reduced to minimal level. Take for example Hurricane Isaac, the tropical storm that swept the Gulf of Mexico in August 2012.
Within a 24-hour period, between August 29 and 30, United States federal officials took the simple but essential steps to respond to Hurricane Isaac.

•Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in coordination with U.S. Northern Command deployed four UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters from Fort Campbell, KY and two SH-60 Seahawk helicopters from Norfolk Naval Air Station, VA, to assist in search and rescue efforts.

•A Search and Rescue planner was activated and deployed in the Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center.

•Mississippi National Guard responded to Hurricane Isaac with approximately 1,500 members from across the state including military police and others with civil support abilities to assist local authorities in recovery and relief efforts.

•FEMA’s Congressional Affairs Division hosted a Congressional Briefing via conference call to provide an update on the latest track of Hurricane Isaac and FEMA’s current posture and preparations going forward.

Without doubt, Nigeria does not have a comprehensive contingency plan for coping with disasters although a few Federal Government agencies have contingency plans and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for dealing with specific emergencies. The same applies to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and several private sector businesses.
The first attempt at developing a National Disaster Response Plan (NDRP) for Nigeria was made under the auspices of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), which was established in March 1999.  NDRP applies to major disasters and emergencies such as floods and fire explosion regardless of the cause.

From the way response to emergencies have been managed in Nigeria, it is clear the existing plan takes a one-sided approach focusing mainly on the separate functions and responsibilities of the government and federal agencies without providing a guideline for the harmonisation of joint federal, state and local response to emergencies and without empowering individuals to take action in times of disaster. 

A national emergency response plan should encourage agencies to develop the procedure and culture in advance to address disasters and emergencies. It is not and should not be about constituting committees after the fact or announcing how many millions of naira have been spent or allocated.

On weather related or seasonal incidents such as floods, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET), the official source for weather updates should issue early warnings. NIMET should position itself credibly so that reports emanating from the agency will be accepted by all as reliable forecasts. NIMET should provide information about potential incidents to the general public adequately, widely and frequently. With notifications made by NIMET, a state of emergency declaration may be declared by the government to underscore the urgency and need for evacuation.

An emergency situation naturally calls for immediate action to abate disruption to public peace, health, safety, or general welfare. As such, the proposed national emergency plan should support and facilitate procurement and logistics coordination between all levels of government, the private sector, NGOs, international stakeholders and residents.

Prior to a disaster or emergency incident, the government is expected to coordinate the plan, roles and responsibilities of all relevant federal agencies, relief support organisations and NGOs. Such preparedness plan will sensitise inhabitants of disaster prone areas to what to do before, during and after an emergency situation.
The National Emergency Plan should capture the need and modality for collaboration for all relevant agencies, ministries and voluntary groups.

In addition, the plan should define rehabilitation steps after an emergency and clearly identify the agencies responsible for restoring affected buildings and areas. 

The emergency plan should create and share safety tips on what to do during an emergency situations and how to do it. NIMET, NEMA and similar organisations should develop capacity to use the media, including the social media to make the needed announcements more effective.

A preparedness test exercise will include organising a full scale exercise to keep safety skills sharp, to corroborate the effectiveness of any proposed emergency exercise plan, to make citizens aware of government’s preparation towards any emergency situation.

The first step would be the creation of public awareness of what constitutes a crisis situation. There is need for public awareness on emergency preparedness, and this will come through public education. This should be done as part of the development of a National Emergency Plan.

Public education plan for emergencies should provide details such as:

•Warning signals  in an emergency situation

•Preparedness for a sudden change in climate situation or natural disaster

•Safety procedures in the event of an emergency situation

•Support for victims of disaster

If we value life the way we should, every family should keep an emergency kit of essential supplies and documents they will need, readying their home for severe weather. A standard emergency kit will typically include three-to-five days’ worth of food, water, medication and clothing for the entire family, an evacuation map, a first aid kit, battery powered flashlights, lantern and radios and extra batteries. Kits should also include chargers and extra batteries for cell phones.

For the economically weak and vulnerable, local and state governments should keep a stock of appropriate kits to be distributed to the citizens. Such stock should be tested and expired kits replaced regularly.

Individuals and families pack vital records and important documents like birth certificates, driver’s licences or identification cards, social security cards, proof of residence and copies of insurance policies in a portable waterproof container.
Individuals and families should locate a place to stay if there is an evacuation in the community and should identify information sources to help families make decisions about its safety.

Everyone from government institutions to NGOs and individuals should and must know their responsibilities and obligations during an emergency ahead of time. Individuals should save important phone numbers such as fire service, police, ambulance, NEMA, Red Cross, etc.

•Ojo is the Founder/CEO of Caritas Communications

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