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Sensitising schools towards disaster preparedness


Saikh Md Sabah Al-Ahmed

The hallowed ramparts of a school have often been referred to as a ‘temple of learning.’ The accomplishment of a school in successfully imparting quality education to young minds doesn’t merely confine itself to sound organisational, infrastructural or academic set up, nay the presence of a committed and robust posse of knowledge facilitators – i.e. teachers. This apart, today’s contemporary ‘brick and mortar’ school environs mostly boast of a state-of-the-art ‘physical’ infrastructure with unending blocs of swanky structures housing thousands and thousands of ‘smiling innocent faces’ for a good part of the day. It is here that the foremost issue of ‘school safety’ vis-à-vis sensitising schools towards disaster preparedness assumes paramount significance. A ‘safer school’ is a place where learning for children and teaching for teachers can only be possible in a resilient environment free of intimidation, risks and fears of disaster.

Natural disasters like floods, droughts and earthquakes destroy the lives of more than 300 million people every year. Disasters can affect anybody at any time. But in most cases the poorest and most vulnerable people, (read children) are affected first and are hit hardest. Climate change is also increasing the strength and frequency of storms, cyclones, earthquakes, floods and droughts. The impact of these disasters depends on people’s vulnerability and their ability to cope. By building ‘community resilience’ and by helping people to adapt to climate change, we can reduce the impact of future disasters. The school is a densely populated place and has small children that are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, perennially prone to such natural disasters. To reduce this vulnerability for schools, it is important to have a school Disaster Management Plan.

So as a consequence, school administrators, staff, teachers and students should be prepared in case of emergencies and disasters due to natural hazards (e.g. earthquakes, floods, typhoons, landslides, etc.) or man-made causes (e.g. urban fire, chemical spills from school labs, bombs, etc.) to protect themselves from personal injury and loss of life and protect the school property from damage. School preparedness requires undertaking the following important actions – creating a school emergency and disaster preparedness committee, designing a school emergency and disaster preparedness plan as well as conducting emergency drills and exercises. It is important to identify the hazards in the school, how to manage the hazards and how to mitigate the effects through planning and effective response. The aim of emergency planning is to ensure that the safety of students and the staff is maintained during an emergency. The emergency management plan is a means by which this can be achieved. Emergency and Disaster Preparedness is one important component of Disaster Risk Reduction. It consists of actions intended to increase the coping capacity of people and make them more resilient to disasters.

Is my school safe?

In the event of an earthquake, which is the most common natural disaster to affect schools, children and teachers in an unsafe school building are at considerable risk. According to the Government of Gujarat, a total of 31 teachers died and 95 were injured, 971 students perished (910 in primary schools, 37 in secondary schools, 3 in colleges and 21 in technical schools) and 1,051 were injured in the Bhuj Earthquake of 2001. Formal education was disrupted due to widespread damage to school infrastructure. Many of the buildings collapsed and many were declared unfit for use. Many of these buildings had been poorly constructed, lacked earthquake resistant features and were badly maintained. The casualties might have been much higher had it not been a holiday, when many students were either at home or were in open spaces because of the Republic Day celebrations.

Northeast’s seismic vulnerability

Harping on the issue of a sound disaster preparedness plan in schools, it must be pointed out that the Northeastern region of India is an earthquake prone area. The region has experienced a large number of earthquakes of tectonic origin. The entire Northeastern region including the ‘Gateway to the Northeast’ – Guwahati, lies in Seismic Zone V, the most seismically active area, and has experienced a series of earthquakes of maximum intensity, including the two devastating earthquakes of magnitude 8.7 of 1897 and magnitude 8.6 of 1950 causing large scale damage of lives and properties in this region. This apart, the seismic map has identified high risk areas of Assam’s capital, Guwahati, which became the fourth city in the country to get its seismic microzonation map, with areas like Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport and the Saraighat Bridge on the Brahmaputra being identified as ‘high hazard zones.’ The report has divided Guwahati into five zones on the basis of integration of ground motion attributes with the geological, geotechnical, geomorphological and local site conditions and said that the western part of Guwahati was the most hazard-prone zone as far as earthquakes and quake-induced disaster was concerned.

 Japan’s mock drills

Perhaps the most seismic prone nation in the world – Japan has made it a ‘national habit of sorts’ to regularly hold mock disaster drills, where people enthusiastically join in response to envisioned massive quakes. The government makes it a point to hold a disaster drill in a neighborhood densely packed with wooden houses. Residents also practice rescuing injured people from collapsed buildings and perform first-response firefighting using buckets. When disaster had struck Japan during the March 2011 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, many people took solace in social sites like Twitter to get information and stay in touch with loved ones. The training was focused on improving people’s knowledge when using social media in the event of disasters. The idea was also to boost awareness of potential problems like services and how to handle incorrect information.

Need for School Disaster Management Planning

Most schools will have no experience of disasters and when they do occur, much of the response is a ‘flying by the seat of one’s pants’ activity. This is why two things are particularly important – ensuring there is a ready made plan to help deal with the incident, and ensuring that there is an adequate command and control system” – David G Kibble, Head, Religion and Community Studies, Lawnswood High School, Leeds, UK.

Schools are generally considered to be safe havens for millions of children and the greatest socialising institutions after the family. However, recent experiences with natural disasters demonstrate the need for schools to be prepared for all-hazard crisis possibilities. It is important to note that there is a fundamental link between day-to-day emergency readiness and disaster preparedness. Schools that are well prepared for an individual emergency involving a student or staff member are more likely to be prepared for complex events such as community disasters. While safety planning is familiar to schools, disaster planning is relatively new to the education sector. Such contingency planning may be seen as an extension of the risk assessment procedure. It is the key to reducing the management of a disaster to a system for making decisions at a time when decision making is difficult.

For most schools, disaster planning, or crisis management, is about ensuring that normality returns as soon as possible and that unnecessary damage is not done to the children and staff; or to the ‘valuable relationships’ built up between the school, parents and the local community. This is consistent with good safety practice and minimises the impact of a disaster. School disaster planning is a facet of larger community planning and, therefore, requires coordinated planning and allocation of community resources. Plans should be developed in partnership with other community groups, including law enforcement, fire safety, public health, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), and pediatric and mental health professionals. How these various groups interface varies by region and whether the incident is of local, state, or national significance. Although EMS traditionally involved emergency medical technicians and ambulances, today it encompasses all out-of-hospital care events through emergency department management. In the event of an emergency in a school or in the community while a child is under school jurisdiction, EMS also includes school nurses, teachers, and other school staff.

A sound disaster preparedness plan should strive to promote a culture of preparedness and prevention by promoting and supporting the mainstreaming of education of disaster risk reduction. The ongoing risk of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, has underscored the need for schools to have disaster plans that are uniquely designed for the school culture and interface with the larger community. Clear guidelines are only part of the process. Schools must also have the resources and expertise to implement disaster plans. Cultural approaches and paradigms must also be taught early to have real success. It has to share innovative and stimulating educational materials and programmes for schools by linking risk reduction curricula to public awareness programmes.

Several other initiatives such as educational presentations, displays and bulletin boards, print and electronic media, radio and television, and any other medium in which disaster safety is communicated to educate and raise awareness about specific hazards can be opportunities for new partnerships and projects that encourage and educate children to be a proactive force in reducing risk in their communities. An ideal vision is that education be made an integral part of long-term development strategy in disaster risk management. Let us all work together towards a common goal of a more educated and prepared community in disaster risk reduction.

The writer is an author, poet, lyricist as well as a columnist of The Assam Tribune, and is presently a faculty member at the Department of Social Sciences, Don Bosco School, Panbazar, Guwahati. He can be reached at sabahalahmed@gmail.com

 

One comment
  1. customer service

    September 2, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    I’ve been wondering about the identical matter personally recently. Pleased to see an individual on the same wavelength! Nice article.

    Reply

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