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JIS News

Within minutes of the first tremor, screams for help rise from beneath the debris of the collapsed concrete structure, forcing their way into a smoke-blanketed atmosphere.
An earthquake, measuring nine on the Richter Scale, with its epicentre in Buff Bay, Portland, had occurred at around 10:10 a.m. Ten minutes later, two fire units and a contingent from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) converge on the incident site at the National Stadium in Kingston.
The National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC), activated by the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), has begun its coordinated response to the tremor and subsequent aftershocks.
There is work to be done – a fire to extinguish and lives to save. The firemen quickly organise themselves and while some laboured to put out the fire, others moved with dispatch towards the rubble to unearth persons, who were trapped and suffering from injuries ranging from broken limbs, and serious internal injuries to hysteria. The National Works Agency (NWA) is on hand as part of the response team, with a tractor on standby to help with the removal of debris.
Disentangled from the ruins, the injured are rushed to a safer area, where they lie on stretchers, grimacing in agony as they await the arrival of the ambulances. The ambulances are delayed. While the patients wait, first aid workers from St. John’s Ambulance and the Jamaica Red Cross are busy tending to their needs and administering care.
In the meantime, the Incident Commander hurriedly requests more ambulances. He sees that the JCF ambulance, which has arrived, cannot meet the needs of the 11 victims.
The emergency activity, which is played out for more than an hour, is not real. The emergency personnel and victims, who are in fact volunteers from the National Youth Service (NYS), are all playing their scripted roles in the January 31 National Earthquake Simulation Exercise staged by the ODPEM..
Though not real, some important lessons were being learnt in terms of earthquake awareness and preparedness.
Chief Observer on the location, Nicholas Brown in a preliminary evaluation of the simulation exercise, heaps commendations on the Fire Brigade. “The firemen worked to the best of their abilities, using the equipment they had,” he says.
He however identifies weaknesses in the level of integration of all the response agencies, and notes that in the event of disasters, everybody has to work together. Mr. Brown also points to a deficiency in resources, particularly relating to the number of ambulances that are available. “Not enough ambulances came on the ground because of a shortage within the system,” he tells JIS News.
Giving his perspective, Acting Director General of ODPEM, Ronald Jackson, confirms that the earthquake response resources are limited and this will present a challenge in handling a real earthquake of high magnitude and intensity.
“We are quite some way behind in terms of the necessities that would offer greater success in our response,” Mr Jackson says. He identifies the Fire Brigade and the Ministry of Health as the sectors, which will need primary attention. “The fire services will need a lot of heavy collapsed structure equipment, such as jaws of life, cranes and trucks to remove debris, and possibly sniffer dogs trained for search and rescue operations. There is also need for more training for the fire services, particularly in the area of handling heavy equipment (and) in conducting massive search and rescue responses,” he notes, adding that the Ministry of Health may need additional ambulances and bed space.
Mr. Jackson explains that the country has a substantial stock of resources, and continues to procure additional resources. However, he makes it clear that there will never be enough to supply the number of persons, who may be displaced in a major disaster. “We must understand that no country the size of Jamaica has within it, the quantity of resources that could be marshalled for the hundreds of thousands who could be displaced,” he stresses.
To address this shortcoming, he says, relationships have been forged with both the international donor community and with the regional community to support the local disaster response mechanism.
Jamaica is party to agreements with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), the Eastern Caribbean Donor Group headed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as Governments of Venezuela, Japan and other nations, which have committed to offer support when needed.
Noting that applying mitigation measures will significantly reduce the demand on resources in the event of a major quake, Mr. Jackson appeals to persons to adopt an attitude of preparedness at all times. “If we can get each person prepared at the household level, certainly, it will reduce the strain on the national resources to respond to something of that nature,” he observes.
He encourages individuals and organisations to conduct drills periodically so appropriate responses can become second nature.
The simulation exercise was conducted to test the readiness of the country’s Earthquake Management Plan and to guide modifications that may be necessary. The budget for the exercise was approximately $3 million and was offset by contributions from the NWA, NEM Insurance, Ashtrom, Grace Kennedy, and other participating agencies.