Next Thursday’s earthquake

earthquake

 

This will be a simulation exercise coordinated by Malta’s Civil Protection Department at 4pm next Thursday in Gozo and three hundred people will be involved.

It will be carried out with EU assistance and in conjunction with the Civil Protection Authorities in Sicily who are partners with the Maltese Civil Protection Department (CPD) in establishing a network within the region that is able to manage seismological disasters.

This exercise signals the coming of age of Malta’s CPD. It has to date delivered sterling service in the areas of fire-fighting, managing pollution and providing assistance required as a result of flooding after heavy storms. Training its staff, and subjecting them to a gruelling simulation exercise, is a gigantic step forward for the CPD. It is the first step of a long journey that is dependent on the dedication of the CPD staff  – which is unlimited – as well as the resources allocated by the state. Such resources, although limited over the years, seem to be slowly trickling down, for a change.

Developing the CPD’s ability to handle disasters will be a major challenge. For a start it will identify its capability to develop effective coordination with the Police Force, with the AFM (Armed Forces) and the health authorities as well as with local councils.

At the end of the day the CPD’s proficiency in disaster management will be measured in terms of its response time as well as the number of lives it saves in such situations. This will generally depend on the severity of the disaster with which it is faced.

This will not only translate into a general level of preparedness. It will also require focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities and in this respect the role of local councils is indispensable. Specific protocols need to be developed and tested in conjunction with local councils regarding the assistance required by children and those who are bedridded or disabled. Catering for all disabilities is an indispensible prerequisite and it requires trained personnel to which the CPD currently has no access. It is an easily identifiable deficiency which needs to be addressed forthwith.

One small example would suffice: how would the CPD personnel, the police, the AFM – or the health authorities for that matter – communicate with persons with  impaired hearing in the absence of staff able to communicate in sign language? Addressing this deficiency is required not just to ensure that Malta is adequately prepared for disaster management. It is also an everyday deficiency that every authority in Malta that offers a direct service to the population at large needs to address. With around five hundred known Maltese with impaired hearing and a number of others who may have remained below the radar, this is an issue which is manageable primarily at a local level. Yet to date it has not been adequately prioritised.

In this context, one would also need to query the level of preparedness of institutions such as Mount Carmel Hospital and id-Dar tal-Providenza. I am informed that even when it comes to fire drills in residential homes for the elderly, the results were not impressive, to put it mildly.

Prompt and effective coordination between the different authorities is crucial in ensuring disaster management. There is a need to test how the different types of equipment used by the CPD, the Police and the AFM interact. Are they compatible? The planned simulation exercise is an opportunity to identify whether, in an actual practice run, matters will work out as planned. Lessons learned in this area will have to be translated into better procurement procedures in the future to ensure smooth interaction between the CPD, the police and the Army.

This will translate into compatible communication equipment as well as adequately maintained vehicles, sea craft and aeroplanes/helicopters which can be used in difficult circumstances. Knowing that maintenance of equipment has never been our forte, this could be quite a challenge!

The simulation exercise on Gozo on 3 September will necessarily lead to a number of lessons learnt which will have to be acted upon in order that Malta’s capability in disaster management is enhanced. This is definitely a bold step in the right direction.

I look forward to the next steps which require the involvement of local authorities.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 30 August 2015

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