In April 2013, Redowan Ahmed Srabon, a university student, watched in shock as news of the Rana Plaza factory collapse broke on television. Instead of just following the TV updates, he took a bus from central Dhaka to the factory, on the city’s outskirts, where more than 1,100 workers died and 2,500 were injured.
Srabon, 22 at the time, stayed at Rana Plaza for four days, shifting concrete rubble and handing supplies to other rescuers. He is still haunted by what he saw and heard: the voices of people trapped in the rubble, begging him to cut off their arms or legs pinned under concrete, or beseeching him to take care of their children if they died.
Despite these painful memories, Srabon wants to be ready to help again if the need arises. So this year he completed a three-day course to become an “urban volunteer”.
The free course, run by the fire department, included lectures, drills and exercises on search and rescue, first aid, fire safety and equipment handling.
“People in Bangladesh suffer from disaster,” he says. “I want to help them.”
The training is part of the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme(CDMP), which is backed by the Bangladesh government and the UN Development Programme. Since 2011, it has trained 30,000 volunteers in nine cities, and aims to reach 62,000 by 2020. Trainees must be at least high school graduates and aged between 18 and 40. They must pass an exam before becoming certified volunteers.
The programme was originally designed to prepare Bangladesh for earthquakes. Although the country experiences regular cyclones and flooding, it is alsovulnerable to earthquakes. If an earthquake of 7.5 on the Richter scale struck Dhaka, an estimated 72,000 buildings would collapse, according to a 2004 CDMP study.
The training is also useful for dealing with manmade disasters like the collapse of Rana Plaza. In poorer countries where infrastructure is lacking, civilians often arrive on the scene of a disaster before under-resourced professional emergency personnel. Their abilities can determine whether people live or die, and if they do not know what they are doing, they could put themselves and others at risk.
Abdul Alim, head of a fire station in the Mohammadpur area of central Dhaka where some volunteers are trained, recalled how a volunteer used the wrong kind of saw in an attempt to free a woman who had been trapped in the Rana Plaza rubble for days. The saw caused a spark that ignited a fire. Both the woman and the volunteer died.
Urban volunteers are also trained in crowd control and coordination. In congested cities, emergency teams must navigate narrow roads, traffic jams and crowds. “People rush to the emergency area out of curiosity. Then professionals cannot get in,” says Alim.
Bangladesh already has nearly 50,000 cyclone preparedness volunteers. A cyclone warning system was established in 1972 after the devastating 1970 Bhola cyclone that killed about 500,000 people.
Cyclone volunteers do not receive as much hands-on training as urban volunteers – the former focus mainly on warning and evacuation.
Khairul Islam, 38, first volunteered with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society in 1984 and was trained as a first responder. He is a pharmacist in Dhaka. As a senior volunteer he spent 18 days at Rana Plaza supporting rescue and first aid teams.
As a volunteer, Islam learned basic firefighting skills as well as search and rescue for collapsed buildings. At the fire station where he was trained, volunteers practised rescue techniques, learned how to put out small fires, and how to use saws and drills.
Part of Islam’s training looked at how to work systematically and coordinate with professional rescuers. This year a building collapsed in Dhaka, killing 12 people. Islam was among the volunteers dispatched there in teams, each with specific duties such as searching for victims and marking locations, rescuing people and giving first aid.
The scheme is starting to pay dividends, but there are gaps. A 2013 assessment of rescue operations at Rana Plaza by CDMP quoted volunteers as saying there was a lack of coordination among emergency personnel and an absence of direction and leadership.
Retaining volunteers is a big challenge. Between 10% and 20% drop out of the programme, mainly because they move away, said Masud Khan, a disaster response specialist with CDMP. The volunteers have also called for refresher courses, as well as travel and food allowances and more ways to stay engaged, such as through festivals for volunteers and online networks.
They also say three days’ training is not enough to learn everything they need to know. Funding for the scheme is an issue – the money to train the next 32,000 volunteers has not yet been committed.
There are nearly 7,000 women urban volunteers. Syeda Rumpa, 23, a student at Dhaka’s Jagannath University, began volunteering in the spring. She enthusiastically recalls learning to use saws and drills. Rumpa’s mother initially didn’t want her to become an urban volunteer but now appreciates what her daughter is doing.
“Our country is very vulnerable,” said Rumpa. “We need more skilled people.”
This article was first published in theguardian.com