Lessons from the tragedy

by SM Ilias

The Savar rescue operation was a fiasco and we must improve disaster management before it is too late

Photo- Dhaka Tribune


As a former member of the Bangladesh navy and having had training in fire, safety and disater management – I deplore the shocking demise of the victims of Rana Plaza’s collapse in Savar as easily avoidable and extremely ill-managed. While this is not the first time a fire or building collapse has caused the death of many Bangladeshis, the death toll of Savar’s recent tragedy is the highest among such incidents.

The rescue operation currently running in Savar has been extremely unprofessional and uncoordinated. The lack of command and training combined with a tremendous shortage of supplies resulted in failure to deal with the crisis and subsequent death of those who survived the collapse.

Materials were collected in a piece-meal method, which indicates that the nation was not prepared to deal with any sort of disaster. The entire nation is now worried about any future disaster. It is terrifying to think of how the nation would deal with an earthquake.

To deal with the crisis, the prime minister deployed the army and other supporting units, putting them in command of the rescue operation.

Unfortunately, they were unable to manage the situation effectively, resulting in a huge civilian presence joining rescue efforts. This meant that necessary safety equipment was spread very thinly across those involved in rescue efforts.

The command unit should have cordoned off the area, allowing entry only to indivuduals engaged in the rescue. Next, a large number of sub-operation teams consisting of members of the army, navy, air force, fire brigade, police, RAB, medical team, and volunteers should have been organised. These sub-teams should have been deployed in various parts of the site to carry out search-and-rescue operations.

There was a clear lack of organisation of the search-and-rescue team, the material-removing team, the medical team, the supporting team, the material-supplying/logistic team, the water and food supplying team, the ambulance/transport control team, the oxygen/SOS medicine supplying team, the dead body monitoring and disposal team, etc.

The search for the survivors was carried out in a very haphazard, out-dated and unprofessional manner. The rescuers should have been using portable CCTV cameras with microphones and movers to find the highest possible number of survivors. The CCTV cameras should have been put through different holes to search and detect the position of the wreckage, as well as the condition of the victims trapped inside. Even a dog squad could have been used if one was already trained for such a situation.

If these methods had been utilised, the rescuers – having a clearer idea of the situation inside the building — could have taken prompt decisions on the course of action and many lives could have been saved.

Moreover, the search-and-rescue members were found using portable flashlights, which are unsuitable for such operations. They should have been using helmet-mounted search lights instead. To make matters worse, untrained people were
engaging in the rescue.

While it is a good sign that so many people were willing to help, their interference in the operation may have resulted in further loss of life. Instead of randomly joining in, they should have waited for instructions from those in charge of leading the rescue operation. What is most disturbing about this operation is that the victims’ relatives were allowed to enter the wreckage and join the search.

Their desperate cries and frantic behaviour not only emotionally disturbed the rescuers, but also obstructed the progress of the operation. These relatives should have been taken to a separate area and provided the necessary information to satisfy them mentally and morally.

The sad fact of the matter is that the standard operatiing procedure (SOP) was not followed at any level. It would have been possible to save more lives if the SOP and above mentioned methods of search and rescue had been followed.

It is alarming that if an earthquake or any such disaster were to occur, 90% of us would probably die due to poor disaster preparedness and inadequate rescue operation equipment. The recent tragedy of Savar is yet another wake-up call for us. We should not wait any more. It is time we trained and prepared ourselves in all respects to face any sort of disaster.

I would like to bring to the notice of the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry the following few recommendations:

– A joint, mock nationwide disaster exercise should be conducted in which defense forces, police, BGB, fire brigade, medical services and several other sections will participate and learn to coordinate and handle crises. There should also be periodic refersher exercises to check and improve efficiency.
– The use of modern search and rescue technology be made mandatory.
– Logistic arrangments and an abundance of all necessary working equipment and material may be kept in ready stock for immediate use.
– Purchase and maintain an abundant store of digging/breaking instruments, helmets with search lights, etc.
– The use of a general information board by the monitoring cell indicating the operation activities and providing information to the public.
– Adequate provision of food, water, medication, etc, during such disasters to trapped victims.
– All sorts of propaganda be resisted through an immediate, justified statement to avoid aggravating the situation.
– Practice during mock exercises of providing necessary directives to people engaged in the operation, and practice of other responsible persons about being cautious in providing any sensitive statements.
– In the event of a disaster management crisis, all talk shows should be held with positive intentions in order to avoid aggravating the public and hindering an effective operation.
– All locally and internationally trained professionals should be called upon to share their knowledge and experiences on how to operate a highly effective disaster management operation. Regular seminars should be held as well.
– Seminars at different levels may be organised at regular intervals to enrich knowledge on disaster management.
– An official press briefing should be arranged at the end of every disaster operation that pinpoints shortcomings and future remedies.
– Performance of case studies on every inquiry report and implement the best recommendations.
– Formation of an advisory committe of highly qualified disaster management professionals.
– The dog squad of army/Rab should be trained and utilised to expedite search and rescue operations.
– All personal safety precautions should be taken by all involved, including use of appropriate safety gear.

The nation is grateful and appreciates the wholehearted efforts and immediate action taken from all sides to save many lives during the Savar disaster. Thanks to all for their support/assistance in helping survivors and continuing rescue operations.

Discipline, coordination, better organising capacity and timely action are the prime factors in conducting any disaster operation.

Training on these issues is a continuous process to enrich and refresh knowledge and produce an effective result. Awareness and preparedness are the most effective tools in saving lives.

Finally, let us pray for the departed souls that they may find eternal peace, and may those undergoing treatment be blessed with early recovery.

May Allah give strength and support to distressed families in the nation.

Commander S. M. ILIAS (E), BN (Retd) is a former Navy Officer.

Source: Dhaka Tribune