‘Every citizen must know dos and don’ts in case of a disaster’https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/every-citizen-must-know-dos-and-donts-in-case-of-a-disaster/

‘Every citizen must know dos and don’ts in case of a disaster’

Alok Avasthy,Commandant of the 5th Battalion of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF),speaks about a year that saw five major building collapses and about the work that remains to be done for India to be capable of handling major disasters at minimum loss of human lives in an Idea Exchange moderated by Srinath Rao

SANDEEP ASHAR: The NDRF has been asking for land in Mumbai. You have communicated this to the state government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC),but there has been a delay. What is your action plan now?

The Ministry of Home Affairs has decided to place three teams in Mumbai and has requested BMC to provide accommodation. Every monsoon,they provide us accommodation. This year,we were in the Andheri Sports Complex and they have asked us to continue there. They have offered us two permanent locations – newly-constructed fire stations in Borivali and Mankhurd. The top floors of both have been offered to us. We have requested for some alterations. They are on the job. The NDRF will be stationed permanently in Mumbai.

SANDEEP ASHAR: Maharashtra is also supposed to have a State Disaster Response Force (SDRF). What is the status of that?

The Maharashtra government has decided to form their own companies of SDRF. We have trained 11 companies of SRPF. They were thinking of converting those into SDRF. Now they are thinking of having standalone SDRF,on the lines of NDRF. Acquiring equipment for this force is in the pipeline. At present,they have decided to have four companies.

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P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: But like the NDRF,does the SDRF also propose to take people on deputation?

That was the cause of delay. If SRPF gives four companies to SDRF,they will lose 15 per cent of their manpower. They said they were already hard-pressed and would not be able to give any personnel.

SMITA NAIR: Do you also study other countries and modules when you are not on the field?

We organise familiarisation programmes for communities and awareness workshops across Maharashtra and Goa. We give our programmes to the state governments. We go to every district,with the priority being disaster-prone districts. We conduct surveys and advise state governments on the dos and don’t’s for every area.

SMITA NAIR: Which are the sensitive areas in Mumbai and Thane?

In Mumbai,there is dense population and lots of agencies. We are in constant touch with BMC and the state government. BMC requests us for specialised programmes. We haven’t given

specific suggestions for Mumbai. The silver lining is that a lot of buildings are made on concrete,so the effect of a cyclone will be lesser. But there are slums as well and the challenge will be to evacuate those living in slums. We are focusing on that,what is the population and where to evacuate them to. We have got a good early warning system. But earthquakes come without warning. And in Mumbai,buildings collapse without earthquakes. Each and every citizen should know the dos and don’t’s. That should be our target.

ALISON SALDANHA: How do you assess BMC’s disaster management mechanism?

It is good. The difference is that they are fire-fighters. Disaster response is an additional responsibility. In case of fire,we will be secondary responders. We are equipping and training them. Recently,they requested us to conduct a one-month training course in handling building collapses.

MEENAKSHI IYER: Disaster management is treated like every other subject at Pune University. There is nothing practical. How do you see that helping?

If you do the course and pass the exam,at least you know what disaster management is. The Maharashtra government has an ‘Aavhaan’ programme for NSS volunteers,where they get extensive training. But unless and until we reach out to parents and all other students,this is not going to work.

SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: What is the time lag when you have to coordinate with multiple agencies?

Whenever we are called,we get a good response from residents. We also go when people are fleeing. Except for disaster tourism that has been seen in Mumbai,we go to places where nobody wants to go. My main focus is to save lives. That’s why our efforts were recognised by BMC and the state government. But lot of things remain to be done.

SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: How soon do you move when a call comes?

Two teams are always ready. We are ready to move in zero response time,once a call comes.

PRIYAL DAVE: What are the lessons learned from the

disasters this year? What changes will be incorporated?

India has old building codes. We don’t need new codes,but the existing ones are not followed. If all engineers,contractors and citizens follow rules,collapses will come down. The NDMA can request the Maharashtra government to ensure that they are followed. As per the Disaster Management Act,there should be an SDMA and SDRF,but it still isn’t.

SRINATH RAO: You have always made a case for air-lifting

because roads slow you down. When will we see NDRF personnel airlifted to the site of a disaster in the interiors of Maharashtra or Goa?

Whenever the government felt the need,we have been air-lifted. We have been air-lifted three times previously. After Cyclone Neelam,the then Home Minister P Chidambaram said the NDRF should have a dedicated air wing. That is in the process. If two-three aircraft are given to me and I have to fly from Pune to the site,where will I land? In helicopters,we cannot take equipment and manpower.

SANDEEP ASHAR: How prepared are we for a CBRN (chemical,biological,radioactive and nuclear) disaster?

For radioactive and nuclear disasters,scientists from BARC are training us. And for chemical and biological disasters,scientists from Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE),Gwalior,and are training us. For others,we have been getting training from the Army. I have trained in Finland and Singapore. We have the best of Indian and international facilities. Around 1,149 people have been trained in CBRN response. We have all the required detection equipment. The basic principle is detection,protection and decontamination.

SANDEEP ASHAR: Hospitals in Mumbai don’t have standard operating procedures. In case of a CBRN disaster,they are going to be the first responders,but they don’t know what to do. Your comment?

SOPs are there,but hospitals don’t know and don’t have decontamination station. The need of hour is to train all government officials and citizens. The SOP for CBRN response are available on the NDMA website. However,implementation is the question. We are supposed to conduct drills. Until and unless we reach every person,our purpose will not be achieved.

GAUTAM S MENGLE: The third building that collapsed this year was located in a narrow alley. How much does lack of accessibility affect your work?

It always affects our work. Whenever any building is constructed in a developed country,they keep these things in mind. Each building will have fire-fighting equipment and exits. Rules should be followed.

ALISON SALDANHA: How does disaster tourism affect your operations?

After the Dockyard Road building collapse,the police did a remarkable job. In terms of crowd control,Mumbra (building collapse) in April,was the worst. They snatched equipment from us. Crowd control was a challenge.

SMITA NAIR: Is the NDRF on par with international teams?

We are following international search and rescue guidelines. We have all the equipment. We can work in all kinds of weather conditions. Logistically,we are good. For international response,international external certification is required. India has applied for that. In the coming days,we will be an internationally certified team. In case of any disaster in any part of world,we can be air-lifted within eight hours. For that,we are going to sign MoUs with Indian airlines,private airlines and cargo planes to provide aircraft at short notice. There is a long queue. Sometime in 2014 or 2015,we might get the certification. We are preparing our teams on the lines of international teams.

GAUTAM S MENGLE: Can you tell us about your equipment?

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We have the best. Such as the life detector type-II — it catches only three hertz frequency,which is emitted by the human heart,and blocks all other frequencies. It a simple piece of equipment,it will lock the heartbeat of the handler and move wherever he moves. It will stop when it catches a live heart other than the handler and the range is 500 metres. After that,we do a confirmation test. The life detector type-I catches minute sounds. We place it on top of a collapsed building and are able to hear any tapping sounds and cries for help by people inside. The victim location camera is like an endoscope,we make a hole and put the camera inside and look for victims.

Transcribed by Srinath Rao