Survivors From The Fire: Even The Best Disaster Management System Can Fail

The ageing Dauphin helicopter takes a full circle before coming around to land on the iron-mesh helipad, high above the somewhat turbulent seas - as we look out, a fully `cloaked' fire fighter waits aside a hydrant, ready to `fire' powerful jets of water in case something were to go wrong.

Nothing does. The helicopter settles down with a light thump and we alight. As we walk towards the metal ladder that descends below to the deck, the rotors are still spinning, sending powerful gusts of wind in our direction. As we walk down somewhat gingerly, the helicopter revs up again and lifts off.

This was ONGC's Bombay High North oil process platform, some 160 km north west of the Bombay coastline. Was because, a month later (July 27th), an offshore supply vessel collided with the platform, setting off explosions and a fire that raged till next morning. A total of 22 people (12 missing) died in the tragedy.

As we reach the deck, the officials on board welcome us and lead us through a door into the cool and welcome confines of the work and operations areas. Our first destination before we do anything else is a safety briefing, we are told. "Whoever visits the platform has to first sit through a safety briefing session," explains the official escorting me. "There are no exceptions ?" I ask. "Absolutely not, he said, this is a very hazardous operation," he says as he opens the door and shows us into largish conference room with tables arranged in a semi-rectangle.

Simple & Effective

The power point presentation is short but sharp and focussed, the it takes us through potential hazards, the safety features built within the platform, the fire fighting capability and the kinds of chemicals used and for what kind of fires. The safety officer even plays out the kinds of sirens that would sound, depending on the kind of hazard.

The officer making the presentation does not display the slightest fatigue that one would associate with a daily chore like this. He answers questions energetically, and smiles when the predictable smart ones come up (will we all fit on the lifeboats ?). He is a man who takes visible pride in his role as custodian of the unit’s safety.

On a flight out of Mumbai last week, I met an (Indian) fund manager who was in London when the floods happened. He had some reservations about the manner in which the media covered the floods; I disagreed but that was not the point. According to him, while the administration had clearly failed in its role as as guardian of citizen’s lives, the citizen themselves were not aware, alert or equipped to respond effectively to calamities such as this. Not quite the case, he argued, in most parts of the developed world.

Which got us talking. And I wondered. When the fire alarm goes off in your work place, what’s the first reaction ? Well, let me tell you, it will most probably be: someone must be testing the alarm or, better still, it must have gone off accidentally. How many of us would lift ourselves and head for the exits, instantly ? Not too many, I would think. Most of us, hardened and deadened perhaps by the city’s very pressures of existence, would react similarly or more aptly, not.

Do It Yourself

So, while the administration may or may not respond effectively, in the short or long term, citizens have no choice but to find their own solutions, the manner in which they respond to crisis situations. Think Mumbai, a affiliation of citizens is putting together a book on how to understand and respond to disasters in the city. Its important to update oneself on and imperative to practice, disaster response, in homes, schools, colleges and work places. Children, as we know, are often a powerful driver of such initiatives for entire families and even communities, particularly if taught well.

Response mechanisms will have to be forged at home. Then, they ought to be extended to the building, society, area, whatever. Its very much possible that the circle of inertia may grow as the group becomes wider. Little wonder, that most developed countries (and I am reproducing a response from Swati Kaushal of Minnesota (US) below) and towns and localities within them drill down such responses till they become part of life.

We may or may not see Mumbai 944 again, though the chances are high. We may see other natural or even non-natural calamities. Our responses to them have to be fine-tuned now. Running out of a building during an earthquake, as Mumbaikars did a few years ago, is one such natural response. Floods and the like are more complex, there is water now and a possible epidemic later.

To conclude, we all need the equivalent of the safety officer on the ONGC rig to be talking to us constantly. Challenging as it is, he ensures that the message never falters and over time, it becomes ingrained and systematized. That person may not exist in our eco-system and hence needs to be found within all of us. I pray the officer is alive and well.

From Swati Kaushal.

Information management, especially in today's world is a powerful, powerful tool. But in a situation where there is poor infrastructure in normal times, a disaster will always be exactly that...a disaster; information managed or not. Yes office workers may stay in the office after reading internet posts but slum dwellers...?

What is required by the government given Bombay's vulnerability to heavy monsoon rain is a system to manage that. Better drainage infrastructure. Enough capacity to drain rainwater into the sea as it falls.

An efficient metereological department that is staffed to anticipate and monitor weather and issue timely advice. If there is one, all the media networks will know anyway to use it real time and people will know to take it seriously.

I live in Minneapolis Minnesota; I moved here from India four years ago. Here, we get tornadoes. The city and every suburb has a tornado alarm, (It's like a lamppost but with a really loud siren at the top) at say at 3-5 kilometer intervals. Whenever the Met department picks up a tornado-like system, the alarms sound and that means everyone has to go down to basements, fire escapes or other safe areas till the alarm stops sounding.

Every first Wednesday of the month at 2:00 p.m. these are tested for two minutes so we know they work.

We also get severe snowstorms. Again; the Met department tracks and issues warnings. Snow plows are positioned and put in place to clear snow realtime, as it falls. Even then, sometimes you cannot anticipate the severity...what appeared on the Met graphs as 8 inches of snow can become 18 in a matter of an hour. People look out the windows and make conservative choices.

Metereological Department, Tornado alarms, snow plows. Not rocket science. The important thing is that these WORK and EVERYONE TAKES THEM SERIOUSLY.

That is the kind of infrastructure that I think would really be helpful in Bbay: flood detection, management, prevention and early warning system that works and everyone takes seriously.

Drains. Advanced Metereological Systems and Trained professionals. Flood warning alarms. These are neither expensive nor difficult. The goverment's time and money would be well spent in putting these systems in place. Citizens and Media would do well to focus their demands, and persevere to ensure that the government follows through.

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