Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of crashing plates and the power going out. A natural disaster – a reality some of us have already faced and a nightmare that others may experience one day. UNICEF helps countries all over the world prepare for emergency situations so people have the best chance of survival.
Hamish Lindsay, UNICEF NZ Programmes Manager, has just returned from Vanuata where his mission was to help the country prepare for a natural disaster by planning a grand scale disaster simulation. Here Hamish gives us a rundown on what’s involved.
What is a disaster simulation?
This disaster simulation is aimed at testing the response plans of the Vanuatu Government and three rural communities in an emergency situation.
Vanuatu is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to natural disasters with regular cyclones, volcanic eruptions and fallout, earthquakes and tsunamis.
UNICEF New Zealand is part of a group of seven NZ-based agencies (with ADRA, Caritas, CWS, Oxfam, Rotary, Tearfund) who are facilitating a NZ Govt-funded disaster simulation exercise in Vanuatu.
At the moment we are focused on the planning of the disaster simulation which will replicate a natural disaster. We want to make our practice run as real as possible and to do this all emergency services will be activated, people will be evacuated from affected areas and temporary health clinics will be set up for those injured.
Essentially the emergency simulation will put us in the heart of an emergency scenario and, more specifically, will help us pin point where emergency response activities and co-ordination can be improved.
What are some of the challenges in effective disaster response?
Even though we only talked through a potential disaster and not the real event, I got a small glimpse of the complexity of responding to an emergency and the immense challenge of managing information in a crisis.
Some of you may be more familiar than others on how challenging communication can get in disasters – the Christchurch earthquake was a difficult time for many when the phones went down for example.
Effective communication systems are vital for effective disaster response – as both a warning system for impending disasters and for response co-ordination when disasters hit.
While in Vanuatu we spoke to an ambulance service member who highlighted the fact that communication is the biggest issue in a disaster as they currently rely on mobile phone networks, which will either be damaged by a natural disaster, or overloaded as people are trying to contact one another in the aftermath.
How else is Vanuatu preparing for any potential disasters?
At the moment many Vanuatu response agencies do not have the resources to buy satellite phones which are a key tool in disasters as they remain active in crisis situations when other forms of communication are down. But progress is being made and work is underway for a new radio network to be set up specifically for these disaster response situations.
Satellite phones are fantastic as they allow key responders such as police, ambulance and aid agencies to communicate with each other when the mobile network is down – a vital tool to ensure a speedy and co-ordinated response.
Disaster simulations take a lot of effort to prepare and run, but it is our hope that the government’s and communities’ existing emergency response systems will be strengthened through this exercise.
Our planning trip was a success and I look forward to returning in June for Vanuatu’s real disaster simulation!
Photos: Mark Mitchell of Caritas NZ