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Disaster management, prevention best defence: Australian assistant commissioner

By Tiffany Hoy

SYDNEY, May 11 (Xinhua) -- Australia is a land of flood and fire, but being in the middle of a tectonic plate, is relatively safe from devastating earthquakes.

However, the Australian emergency management system is still well prepared for earthquake recovery, sending highly-skilled response teams overseas when emergencies arise.

Fire and Rescue NSW not only serves their home state as Australia's largest urban fire service, but has bravely assisted in the aftermath of destructive international earthquakes in the Asia Pacific region, while still taking care of their duties at home.

"Fire and Rescue provide firefighting services, rescue services and hazardous materials. We respond to those types of emergencies. Also, we're an accredited urban search and rescue team, and we've been accredited by the United Nations INSARAG (International Search and Rescue Advisory Group)," said Rob McNeil, Assistant Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW.

"We conduct rescue teams to go and do search and rescue efforts where there's earthquakes or any sort of disaster such as the Christchurch earthquake, the Queensland flood and a whole host of bush fires that we've had over recent years."

Australia prides itself on providing foreign aid to its neighbours during times of need.

The nation also helps to fund disaster prevention programs overseas, announcing in July 2012 a contribution of 100 million Australia dollars over five years to help developing countries reduce their vulnerability to natural disasters.

The aim is to minimise the damage on towns and villages, so teams like Fire and Rescue NSW have a better chance of recovering survivors.

"Our responsibility is just to NSW in our day-to-day work, but we can get calls from other countries; that comes from the Australian government," said McNeil.

"We have emergency management arrangements where we do work with other agencies such as our ambulance service, police service, engineers and doctors, and we put together these ESR teams. We make that service available to the people of NSW, Australia and the rest of the world.

"In the Asia Pacific we have what we call the Ring of Fire -- an area where there is a lot of earthquakes. It goes all the way up the Australian coastline, it goes up the Indonesian, China, Japanese coastline, back down past New Zealand -- and that's an area where we will go and assist anywhere when the other countries call us for help."

Experts agree that the best way to minimise the impact of natural disasters is to educate citizens and prepare emergency protocols in advance.

"One of the things that all Emergency Services workers promote is prevention and preparedness. They are two of the best things that you can do, because we really don't want to have to respond to these types of situations, such as earthquakes, floods and fires, and have to pull out victims of these things, because they do have catastrophic events. Lots of people do die," McNeil said.

"So the best thing you can do is to be well prepared for it, like any fire drill, earthquake drill or tsunami drill; make sure that you access the information on what to do. And with earthquakes, basically, it's to get into a secure area as soon as it happens. In doorways, under tables, and get everyone together and try and be safe.

"Also, have a very strict building code. That's part of the preparedness. We responded to the Japanese tsunami-earthquake in March 2011, and the Japanese building code, which they retrospectively changed after the Kobe earthquake disaster, really did seem to stand up to that major magnitude 9 earthquake. It was the tsunami that killed the 20,000 people that died there.

"So good building code, good preparedness and prevention activities, make sure and help people survive.

"In the Japanese tsunami, what did happen was a lot of people went down to the foreshore to watch the tsunami, because they did believe that they had barriers in place that would deflect it. The tsunami was far bigger than the barriers, and came through, and unfortunately those people perished."

When the Fire and Rescue NSW team arrive on the scene of a major earthquake or disaster, they work together with local government and other agencies to save as many lives as they can.

"It is a very sophisticated set of events. The emergency management procedures we have -- first of all the management team goes and meets up with the country's government or the people in control. So we always do it at the wishes of the government whose country it is. So we go and meet up with them, and we set up our incident management team," said McNeil.

"Basically we say, here we are, this is what we've got, how can we help? So once we've done that, we set up our team, and we have an operations officer and we also have a recon team. The recon teams go out and they do a search, and they talk to the people on the ground to see where victims may be trapped. Then we get down to the technical side of it.

"Predominantly in earthquakes, buildings collapse, and they do what we call a pancake. And so the floors fall down and pancake on top of each other. And the upper floors usually have more space, but as the weight gets greater, it compresses the lower floors. And our team, they come in there, they cut through the top floor and they start to pull out all the rubble inside that building, and they search for people.

"In Christchurch, where we undertook those actions, because that was a typical earthquake rescue, when the buildings collapsed and when they finally completed their searches, and they peeled off the layers of each slab of concrete, you could see where all of our firefighters and paramedics had wormed their way through that building. And they nearly covered the whole floors that had been collapsed.

"Actually our team, and we're very proud of it, were the only team to pull out a survivor from the Christchurch earthquake alive. So any successful, and people can survive today.

"You prefer not to be in that situation, so I really do believe that prevention and preparedness are the best things that we can do, and for things like earthquakes, all we can do is make sure we 've got really well-engineered buildings, and we've got good procedures when an earthquake happens."

For those living in an earthquake-prone area, McNeil said preparation was the key to increasing chances of survival.

"In regards to people protecting themselves from earthquakes, really the best thing you can do is you can be very aware of the type of area that you're living in, if it is an earthquake area, and to make sure that if there is an earthquake, you know where to go, and you make sure that you've got a good plan of how to get there.

"So you need to be in the strongest part of those structures, or you need to be in an open clear area. You need to make sure that your evacuation procedures and your preparedness are very good, to make sure that you're safe."

And his advice for governments and policy-makers to avoid these scenes of devastation and heavy loss of life?

"My advice definitely would be, from what I've seen, is we're far better off to prepare for these sorts of things, we need to make sure that our people are well-drilled in emergency evacuation procedures and safety procedures when there are earthquakes or any sort of natural disasters such as bushfire or flood, and also that our engineering and building code standards are the best possible, so that people do have every chance of survival when we do have an earthquake."

 

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