Over the past two decades of working in the risk-consulting business, two things have become apparent to me: (i) after every major incident, we suddenly become very worried and conscious about lack of safety, and (ii) we forget all about our worries in about a week. In the meantime, lives and livelihoods of several families are permanently altered because of the incident—all in haste.
How we behave during and after an incident is correlated with the number of lives saved or lost. When a serious incident occurs, whether a road accident or a building fire, hundreds of people flock to the spot. Soon the roads get blocked. People begin to talk about it on social media. Mainstream media quickly picks up the news. By the end of it, there is absolute panic with little reliable information on the incident.
There has been much discussion about the lives saved in the fire at Banani's FR Tower because of the actions of daring heroes who risked their own lives to save others (we saw this during Rana Plaza too). Yes, several lives were saved, thanks to some people's heroic efforts.
However, let's not forget that roads were totally blocked all the way up to FR Tower by thousands of onlookers, which prevented fire trucks and emergency services from reaching the site quicker. Thus the question that should also be asked is: how many lives were lost due to roads being blocked?
Dhaka is severely congested. But carefully devised roles played out by the police, fire department, and emergency medical services can save critical time and lives. The government is working on developing an emergency response plan. But implementation, investment, and training will take time. In the meantime, the following strategy may be put in place as a response to any emergency.
Role of the police
Once confirmed information is received by the police, they may inform the local electric supply authority to cut off electrical power, and begin the process of clearing people from the area. This is to ensure clear passage of the various other emergency services, and for the safety of the general public (boilers, chemicals, and transformers may explode, glass may shatter). The police are well-versed in clearing roads, thanks to the movement of high-profile VIPs around the city. The entire route from the fire station to the site of the emergency is to be cleared for smooth passage. A yellow-tape barrier will keep the public at bay. Onlookers and those willing to help should be restricted from breaking through the barrier until and unless their voluntary services are requested. It is important to note that public emotions run high during such emergencies. The police needs to remain calm, be sympathetic but firm, and hold down the fort during this period.
Role of fire services
It is important that fire services are in constant communication with the police who can feed them information which will allow the fire services to decide whether to send ladders or long-range crane fire trucks, safety nets, inflatable cushions, and water or other suppression agents to the site. Fire service authorities need to ask a few basic questions to the police: (i) what is the emergency (fire, building collapse, accident, etc.)?; (ii) what is the occupancy (office, residence, factory, warehouse, etc.) type?; (iii) what is the height of the building?; and (iv) what is the estimated number of lives at risk? Fire trucks can be dispatched from various locations based on this information. It is imperative that the first responders are also the right responders (take the FR Tower incident as an example). This is achievable if the right information is communicated to the fire services in the first instance.
Role of emergency medical services
Throughout the world, fire services are typically dispatched together with emergency medical providers to the same location. With the right information, medical services can also help estimate the total number of ambulances and personnel required to be dispatched.
Role of civilian onlookers
The advice from emergency experts is to “stay away”. Give space to the authorities to do their job. If you wish to volunteer, let the police know you are standby to assist. If the fire service authorities require volunteers, the police will then draw a specific number of volunteers to assist the fire brigade. Till then, wait and remain calm. Once again, taking the FR Tower incident as an example, the first few ambulances arrived approximately at 1:45pm; however, many could not reach the site as the entire road was blocked by onlookers.
Role of media
An emergency situation is already (negatively) sensational. There is no need to further sensationalise it. All that it does is create unnecessary panic and desperation. Don't speculate. Report what is known to be accurate. Inaccurate information wastes time as it diverts resources.
Need for change
One thing that must change is the way the authorities communicate with the public during ongoing emergencies. And currently, there is an absence of communication. During the course of an emergency, a designated official from the nearby police station should take charge and draw the public and media to a nearby location to give updates at every 30-minute interval. S/he will update them on the actions being taken by the authorities. By not taking control of the communication process, the authorities allow the public and the media to draw their own conclusions. Don't prevent the media from doing their job, but work with them.
The above formula can be replicated for any emergency situation.
The government needs to lead by example. Government establishments should be the role model for non-public entities. How many government schools, colonies, offices, and hospitals are equipped with fire hydrants, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, alternate emergency exits and fire escapes, fire plans, emergency response plans, or fire-rated doors? The answer is, very few, if not none. This leads to claims of double standards and generates mistrust among the general public. The government should lead the way by setting an example of minimum standards, not just for building construction, but also for public safety. People also need to start demanding safer workplaces and facilities from their employers.
How many fires or Rana Plazas will it take till we wake up to the alarming reality of the near non-existence of safety standards that we are living with?
MR Khan is CEO of Integrated Risk Consulting Group (iRCG), and a specialist with 24 years of experience in safety and reinsurance.