Rita Plotnikova in Sutomore
Calamities, as last year’s floods in central Europe proved, can transcend borders. But so can partnerships to manage them.
Last month, a regional Red Cross workshop in the Montenegrin town of Sutomore, which brought together participants from 13 countries, further developed the concept of the Regional Disaster Response Teams (RDRT), which were deployed during the 2002 floods, and aimed to involve more partners in the Red Cross relief work.
Theoretical learning was combined with practical exercises, including an earthquake simulation in Bar, a costal city that in 1979 was hit by a tremor measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale.
The alarming conclusion that participants came to after the first day assessment was that if another earthquake were to strike Bar tomorrow, its citizens would have considerably more problems than they had in 1979.
“Your disaster simulation is more than an exercise for us. It is an alert for action,” the Mayor of Bar, Anka Voevodic, told the Red Cross team. She said the questions the Red Cross put to the local government, health and transport institutions were an incentive for them to rethink their approach to disaster preparedness.
“We did not learn a lesson from 1979,” Voevodic confessed. “During the past few years we were more preoccupied with socio-economic problems. Today even fire extinguishers are not working properly. Disaster preparedness plans exist but they are not known to anyone, even among the authorities. We are not prepared for a disaster and we react in an ad hoc way only once it has started.”
How well prepared are Europeans for the threat of earthquakes? The Stability Pact’s 2001 analysis confirms that, although most of the states that its teams visited possessed some form of national disaster management plan, few appear to be comprehensive.
“They do not define clear roles for individual organizations,” the report says. Nor do they provide “an adequate basis for mutual support from others within the nation or external support from neighbouring nations”.
Eight out of the 28 participants in the workshop were from non-Red Cross organizations that deal with emergencies. “Such workshops are a real manifestation of impartiality,” said Arvydas Ramelis, from the Latvian Emergency Medicine Centre.
“Irrespective of country, profession and experience, we are all equal here, just as we are when facing a disaster,” Ramelis said. “The knowledge we are getting is not just for the RDRT, we can use it in our countries and at our jobs now. At this workshop it is hard to distinguish where the theory ends and real life starts.”
It is one thing to train people. How to keep them motivated is a key question facing the Red Cross and other organizations dependent on volunteers.
“It is easy to raise initial interest shortly after a disaster. But interest can wane when there is a quarter or half a century between the major earthquakes,” says Sune Follin, the Federation’s Regional Disaster Management Delegate. “We need to maintain people’s skills and commitment between disasters.”
Continual upgrading of knowledge, regular meetings, participation in simulations in other countries and communication with professionals keeps the Red Cross RDRT members motivated in Central Europe.
The teams are designed to be a rapid response tool. Bringing together a variety of skills and sharing common know-how, they are capable of deployment in six to 24 hours for a period of two to six weeks. Compatible with the International Federation’s Field Assessment and Coordination Teams (FACT), they play an auxiliary role in national disaster response.
Joint planning, training and exercise are building trust, making it easier to offer and accept help. “They allow competent people in various National Societies and other organizations to speak the same professional language and understand each other easily when using regional resources or applying for international ones,” Follin says.
Red Cross Societies in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia and Montenegro have already trained staff.
A major disaster can overwhelm the coping capacity of any single nation, bringing a sudden and urgent need for external assistance. In Central Europe those are powerful arguments for neighbour to help neighbour, and the Red Cross is developing regional networks to ensure sustainable effective relief.
In the extensive list of risk reducers - ranging from enforcement of regional standards on construction, disaster preparedness and response planning, knowledge sharing, training and public information through mass media and school education – the Red Cross strategy is clear: it requires National Societies to act as auxiliaries to government.
Perhaps the most versatile of disaster preparedness skills is first aid training, in which most Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies specialize. Volunteers put their first aid training to use all over the world, and not only during disasters.
A first aid competition held in Bar in parallel with the disaster preparedness workshop was another practical way in which the Red Cross could help prepare local people for any future catastrophe.
Regional reports from Central Europe
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