Published: Friday, May 10, 2013

Perspective

A Disaster That Could Be Better Managed

Photo: Palash Khan

Photo: Palash Khan

What kind of help do the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse need? What is the price of a lost leg or hand? How much is a human life worth? The answers depend on what side we are on. From the perspective of the wounded or the families of the dead, no amount of help is enough. Ordinary people understand that. That’s why they have raised funds, donated medicine, blood, oxygen, masks, and worked alongside government agencies and other organisations even though they are fully aware that the latter are doing their best to help the victims. According to news reports, the government sent some 1,000 soldiers and firefighters to the site although it is believed that the majority of the rescuers who went into the rubble were volunteers. Equipped with little more than their bare hands, hammers and hacksaws, they crawled into narrow holes in the rubble breaking through concrete and steel bars and working ceaselessly to drag out the victims. On any given day, we value heroism because it is rare. In the aftermath of the Savar tragedy, we value heroism because it is everywhere.

While the courage and altruism of general people has been invaluable in the rescue efforts in terms of the number of lives saved, the idea of allowing untrained, inexperienced civilians into dangerous areas may lead to serious consequences.

The cracks in the nine storey building were visible to all. And yet the owner and some local officials ignored those ominous signs thinking this would not happen to them. A fatalistic outlook on life took over rational thinking. Did they think even if they do not follow building code and even if they do not use proper materials for constructions nothing will happen to them? The law of cause and effect seems to have no meaning to them. They forgot the simple rule of life: if something can go wrong, it will. And wrong it went. As of May 5, the death toll reached 610.

Brigadier General Ali Ahmed Khan psc, Director General, Fire Service and Civil Defence Directorate, commander of the search and rescue team at Rana Plaza says, “Our workers have risked their own lives to save the victims. The enthusiasm of many volunteers inspired us. But they lacked in proper skills and training. They did not have the technical know-how to use the equipment used for such rescue operations. They were cutting rods with the reciprocating saw. And it was causing sparks. Inside the building there were highly flammable materials that were catching fire. We were entering the wreckage vertically because the structure was unstable. If we went through the sides of the building, the whole thing might have collapsed. Some people were doing just that. We told them not to do it. But they were emotional.”

Experts say that there should be self-sufficient units in the Army or the Fire Service to deal with such disasters. Photo: Prabir Das

Experts say that there should be self-sufficient units in the Army or the Fire Service to deal with such disasters. Photo: Prabir Das

Equipment such as ground-penetrating radars (GPR), fibre optic cameras and remote visual inspection devices are essential for rescue operations of this kind yet Bangladesh, despite so many building disasters, does not have them. GPR can be used to locate survivors in the wreckage of a collapsed building. The camera captures images from inside the wreckage.

“We have to understand the local context. For example, the equipment used for locating bodies using heat sensor did not function at Savar due to the high temperature inside the collapsed building. We need a radar system for locating bodies,” says Mohammad Abdul Wazed, Director General, Department of Disaster Management, Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. “A proposal to buy different equipment worth Tk 160 crore has been put forward by the Planning Commission in April, 2013. Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) of 1993 should be implemented in the construction of all buildings. The number of well trained local volunteers must be increased. There must be a structure that can conduct search and rescue operations on its own. Although people have helped a lot, they often crowded the place interfering with the rescue mission. Training and research institutes for capacity building of those responsible for rescue operations must be developed. Thirty seven universities are now offering degrees in disaster management. “

Lack of proper planning and preparedness has been a problem in the search and rescue operation at Savar. A central database with the details of the victims is yet to be developed. Many family members have been searching for their missing relatives without much success. Lack of coordination has affected the procurement of relief materials. There was at, one point, a surplus of blood which, unless preserved properly, would be of no use. Experts have said a comprehensive database could be easily made using smart apps on smart phones. Having two control rooms-one run by the army and another by the district administration instead of one hampered with the systematic flow of data. Dr Munaj Ahmed Noor, professor of Civil Engineering at BUET and an internationally recognised expert on urban safety and disaster risk management says, “We could have contacted INSARAG (International Search and Rescue Advisory Group) and sought their advice. There must be a self-sufficient unit in the fire service or the army called search and rescue unit. The agencies responsible for the rescue operation took a lot of time in deciding whether to use heavy equipment or not. The use of heavy equipment does not only mean lifting the roof and taking it away or things like that. If we are supplying oxygen to an area where there are sparks, fire will break out. They should have neutralised the area first. It shows sheer lack of experience. People without training are likely to get overwhelmed and confused in such situations. And they are likely to make mistakes. The rescue operation concentrated mainly on cutting through concrete and rescuing. But it takes a long time and after reaching a certain point we may not be able to cut anymore. Debris can be removed by using the method of shoring (the process of supporting a structure in order to prevent collapse).But then again, those on the ground are in a better position to make that call.”

Man-made disasters are created over time. Negligence, carelessness, violation of safety codes, lack of supervision, greed and unjust business deals—all contributed to creating conditions for causing the needless tragedy at Savar. It is important to understand what went wrong and how such tragic accidents could be prevented from happening in the future. Such disasters need to be managed in a series of phases: establishing strategies to mitigate hazards; preparing for and responding to emergencies; and recovering from effects. Training programmes, workshops, seminars, simulation and drills should be organised to enhance preparedness. Partnership with foreign governments and international bodies need to be built.

While it is easy to criticize the army or the fire service, the fact is they often have to clean up after the havoc wreaked by corrupt building owners and some dishonest officials.

Giving a lifeline to a victim gasping for survival. Photo: Palash Khan

Giving a lifeline to a victim gasping for survival. Photo: Palash Khan

“In some areas the chairman of the municipality is issuing okay certificates to risky construction. This must be stopped,” says Brigadier General Ali Ahmed Khan psc. “RAJUK says they do not have enough manpower to inspect all buildings. They may outsource the job to skilled and trained engineers. We have to develop volunteers at the local level. Retrofitting of structures can reduce vulnerability of risky buildings. The Japanese are doing it. Our responses must be customised keeping with the local conditions. Many have complained about why we have not asked for foreign assistance. If the foreign experts came, the first thing they would do would be to stop the operation and secure the area by isolating it from the crowd. By that time, a lot of the people trapped inside would have died. “

It is not easy to stay focused and remain calm in the midst of the wailing of the wounded, the sirens of ambulances, whistles of the volunteers and overpowering stench of rotten human bodies. The doctors and students at a nearby medical college never experienced anything like this before.

Dr. Shahariar Ahmed, at Enam Medical College and Hospital at Savar says, “Our students worked around the clock to provide medical care to victims. Victims admitted to our hospital are in a better condition now. Even the amputees are doing better. We thank our students and people of all walks of life for their support.”

Many believe that BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) has done little to improve, among other things, working conditions and workers’ safety even after so many deadly accidents at several garment factories in recent times. BBC on April 25 commented “A number of factory owners have gone into politics, gaining seats in parliament, becoming ministers, with many BGMEA members joining the two major political parties. Garments entrepreneurs are reputed to be some of the most generous financiers of political parties.”

Syed Sadek Ahmed, Direcor, BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association says, “. If the government agencies give someone permission for construction without checking the facts, how can BGMEA be held responsible? If the building was not made using proper materials, is it the fault of BGMEA? We have implemented a crash programme in each garment factory. We have formed a team comprising an owner and nine mid level managers in each company. They receive training on fire safety and other safely related issues. So far we have been able to implement it in only 160 factories.”

There are an estimated 5000 garment factories in the country.

Those who were buried in mass graves were denied the dignity of a proper funeral. They did not get respect they deserved as human beings—in life or in death. Some volunteers realising that have gone beyond their duty to help the victims.

Imam Jafor Shikder, Director, Youth and Volunteer Department, Bangladesh Red Crescent Society says, “Red Crescent Youth volunteers alongside the army are packing decomposed human bodies although it is not their job. They are doing it out of their commitment to helping those in need. They are doing it beyond their call of duty. More Training programmes can be arranged in the area of first aid, rescue and response. The government issued a gazette notification through the Ministry of Education to the effect that each school has to develop volunteers who will be able to assist government agencies in natural or man-made disasters. We need more vehicles, walkie-talkies, flash lights and masks. The good hearted people helped us a lot.”

With the state organs riddled in corruption and incompetence, the only hope at this moment may very well be the goodwill of the resilient people of this country. The sacrifice of people of all socio-political stripes during and after the collapse of Rana Plaza will be remembered for a long time to come. This may happen again. The country needs to be prepared for that.

  • A Banalee

    They are preparing for political battle but not for disaster. That is what Bangladesh is.