Brig Gen Engr Ali Ahmed Khan, director general of Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, speaks with the Dhaka Tribune’s Ashif Islam Shaon about how to increase the Fire Service's response capacity, and how coordinated efforts can improve emergency response times
How prepared is Bangladesh for if an earthquake hits?
Our preparation is better than before. The governmental organisations and forces are holding regular coordination meetings. A project has even been undertaken to make arrangements for shutting down immediately during the earthquake.
Police stations, government hospitals are being retrofitted. The city corporations are preparing volunteers (and) I think the mayor is the right person to coordinate organisations and people in the grassroots level. They are the people responsible for managing open spaces in which people can take shelter during an emergency.
But we need regular drills at every area in the capital. The Fire Service cannot do it alone. Sometimes we do some isolated drills but that is not enough. In the operational plan, every agency is supposed to play a part. There are some scattered plans which need to be more integrated, well composed and well coordinated.
What is the Fire Service doing to increase emergency response capacity?
Some initiatives have been taken to increase capacity for emergency response after an earthquake. These include developing volunteer teams and awareness programmes for the public. We have visited schools, colleges and corporate offices to discuss with the people how they should respond during and after an earthquake.
The search and rescue operations are vital, especially immediately after the disaster. For this, volunteer groups have been formed at each ward in the city corporation areas.
Different forces have to come together to form response teams. We have already worked with the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. The government has purchased a good amount of equipment for emergency earthquake response. Besides, several projects have been undertaken in order to strengthen the Fire Service and Civil Defence with the assistance of World Bank and Jica.
What obstacles might obstruct the rescue operation were an earthquake to hit a big city in Bangladesh?
The problem is that many of the Dhaka roads are narrow and in the case of an earthquake, there will be some fire incidents. For a quick response to such a disaster, we need to build several small satellite stations.
The fire service department has developed a plan on how we can respond promptly in other big cities like Chittagong and Rajshahi. We have jointly conducted some rehearsals with the armed forces on how we can use helicopters to carry the equipment to the other cities, as the communication system may collapse following an earthquake.
In major incidents we will need the army’s assistance. The disaster minister has provided the army with heavy equipment for post-disaster response. We have light and medium equipment (so) we will need to work in coordination with them.
So is coordination the main focus now?
What we need the most is a National Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). The government has already approved the establishment of such a centre and we suggested the full participation of different forces with their resources and capacities.
Part of the disaster preparation is knowing the capacity of different forces and hospitals, and the available resources of different government departments and organisations. The preparation also includes knowing whether the airports and seaports will remain usable following a disaster.
We wanted to rehearse the plans on the ground. We need to increase coordination among the stakeholders and others such as the gas and electricity supplying authorities, who also need to know their roles. If we all know each others’ capabilities, we would need less time to coordinate and quickly respond.
There is a big challenge in that people are still living in a number of worn-out buildings which are yet to be vacated. There are 321 such identified buildings and some are being demolished. Some old buildings need to be retrofitted, if it is found to be cost effective.
What else can be done?
Building owners have roles to play. The earthquake resistant buildings may cost a bit more but it will save lives. They should keep open spaces in front of buildings so that people can have a safe space during an earthquake. We also need to keep space for big roads in the city plans.
All electric and gas lines in the city are unprotected. In our cities, gas is supplied through pipelines that can leak and explode in an earthquake. We need to change the system.
We need more modern equipment. The problem is, there is a tendency to neglect the Fire Service. We struggle to get land for fire stations and allocation for equipments. We need to increase the number of fire stations.