On Wednesday an earthquake of 4.4 magnitude on the Richter scale was reported in the Maltese islands. As far as we are aware no damage was caused, yet it would be appropriate to consider a number of relevant issues.
Are we prepared for the consequences of a much stronger earthquake which would cause considerable damage including the potential death of a substantial number of persons?
Around two years ago, the Civil Protection Department (CPD) in conjunction with the Sicilian counterparts carried out an earthquake simulation exercise in Gozo which, undoubtedly, provided CPD personnel with valuable experience. It is not known if the department has been involved in any subsequent exercises, either locally or abroad, nor is it known if any specific operational changes were implemented by the CPD as a result of the lessons learned in the 2015 exercise.
It is, however, pertinent to point out that it is not only the CPD, the Police, the AFM and the Health Authorities that need adequate and continuous training to cope with the aftermath of a strong earthquake in the Maltese Islands. In addition to the operators of the different sectors of the infrastructure (energy, water, transport) the civilian population should also receive training for this unlikely eventuality.
Simulation exercises involving the civilian population are necessary as they would develop at local level an ability to manage a disaster. We need to start from scratch in building up a civil defence corps worthy of the name, coordinated and trained by the CPD but based in each locality in Malta and Gozo.
It is a responsibility which, together with adequate resources, should be assigned to local councils under the watchful eye of the CPD.
This would be the appropriate way to build up an adequate general level of preparedness for disaster management. The involvement of the local councils would also ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable members of our communities are addressed. Specific protocols need to be developed and tested in conjunction with local councils regarding the assistance required by children and those who are bedridden or disabled. Catering for all disabilities is an indispensible prerequisite and this requires trained personnel to which the CPD currently has little if any access. It is an easily identifiable deficiency that needs to be addressed forthwith.
Those in charge of disaster management in time of need require the ability to communicate with people having impaired hearing. Is anyone at the CPD, the Police, the AFM or the Health Authorities able to communicate in sign language? Addressing this communication deficiency on the part of the authorities 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 500 known Maltese with impaired hearing and a number of others who could have remained below the radar, this is an issue that is manageable primarily at local level.
The CPD is one of the youngest departments and to date it has given sterling service in fire-fighting, managing pollution and providing assistance required as a result of flooding after heavy storms. We look forward to the next step in its development: ensuring that training in disaster management is an integral part of the services of local authorities.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 27 August 2017