A plan is as good as its enforcers

A plan is as good as its enforcers

Suddenly a green rescue truck whizzed past, nearly crashing into the fallen building," former director-general of the Fire and Rescue Department Datuk Dr Soh Chai Hock says, recalling the chaos that erupted after the collapse of the Highland Towers more than 20 years ago.

"Everyone had rushed to the site and there was a lot of confusion. There was no one in charge and no coordination between the different search and rescue teams.

"No one could tell for certain how many were trapped under the rubble. It was a disaster like nothing we had ever experienced before," he says.

Malaysia had to ask for aid from other countries to deal with the tragedy, and rescue teams from Singapore, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and United States arrived the next day, he tells.

That tragedy forced the country to rethink how we handle disasters.

Four years later, Malaysia was able to send an emergency response team to Indonesia to help deal with a disaster.

"Forest fires that raged across Sumatra and Kalimantan were causing a terrible haze here, so we told the then Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, that the only way to stop the haze was to go to Indonesia and stop the fire.

"Dr Mahathir immediately made the decision to send us over, and Operation Haze was launched," he says.

Malaysian firefighters fought the blaze for over 25 days and managed to douse it, ending the haze.

"In just four years, we changed from being an aid recipient to an aid donor. At that time, we did not have new equipment or assets or new uniforms. We had the same team of people, same equipment and same poor uniforms, but we had a new mindset, and we were able to respond to the disaster effectively."

They had learnt from the 1993 Highland Towers tragedy, specifically the "crisis within the crisis", which is the lack of management and leadership during an emergency, Dr Soh notes.

With the Directive 20 - the policy and mechanism for national disaster and relief management - issued by the National Security Council (NSC) of the Prime Minister's Department in 1997, the way Malaysia responded to disaster and emergencies was transformed.

It's this experience that had him all incensed when he went to Kelantan as a volunteer during the floods in December. It was deja vu, he vents.

"It felt like Highland Towers all over again. But why? Why were we not prepared?"

Caught out by the scale

Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar had candidly admitted the weaknesses and inadequacies of rescue agencies in handling what is said to be the country's worst flooding in decades.

As he pointed out, they did not have a fallback plan and the adequate equipment. And when the rescue personnel became victims themselves as the flood grew worse - swamping their operation centres and homes - they floundered.

Dr Soh thinks that was a clear indication of a weakness in our disaster management, "It was clear that we did not plan for the worst-case scenario."

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, as NSC head, had already acknowledged that the existing Disaster Management standard operating procedure (SOP) for floods may not be adequate to cope with the threat of new and larger floods, and a more comprehensive SOP would be drawn up by June this year. The new SOP is expected to address the current inadequacies including the number of assets, command and control, communication equipment, simulation training and meteorological services.

Mercy Malaysia president Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Perdaus agrees that a review is vital.

"In the recent floods, we could see that it was not just what we have but how we use it that was a problem. We did not have enough hardware or manpower dedicated to the task.

"The number of boats we had, for example, was just not enough. Many flood victims had to wait so long and endure critical moments before they were rescued. I really feel it was a miracle that the death toll was not higher; we could have lost more lives," he says.

Last Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had said that Malaysia would study Japan's governance structure in dealing with natural disasters.

"In Japan, they don't have a specific agency but a specific law that enables a special council to manage disasters before, during and after they occur," he had said after a briefing by the Japanese Authority on Disaster Management and Countermeasures Policies in Tokyo.

Muhyiddin, who chairs the National Disaster Committee, said the Japanese council, headed by the prime minister, empowered a top official with the rank of director-general to mobilise assets and personnel in times of disaster, as well as handle rebuilding efforts. He alluded that the NSC which is responsible for all aspects of national security including disasters, may not have the capacity to deal with natural disasters, and the country might need a new mechanism to handle them.

While he agrees that it is timely to review how effective the implementation of the NSC has been, Dr Soh strongly believes the main focus should be on the enforcers of the NSC's disaster and emergency response plan, including the top commanders.

As he puts it, we cannot just blame the "tools" for the woeful response to the recent floods - we also need to look at the "workmen" - specifically their skill, knowledge and attitude.

"We already have the instrument, and what we need is the right leadership at all levels to implement its plans. It's not only the plan but how we implement the plan that is the secret of our success.

"We need to review how effectively we have instructed and trained the relevant personnel to apply the existing SOP, in line with the needs of the current environment and climate.

"Sure, we have had various exercises and training to prepare the agencies and their personnel for disaster, but how effective were they?" he says, stressing that an emergency response plan is only as good as the personnel who have to implement it.

An example is Kemaman district leadership in improving and implementing its flood management plan, which was singled out by the PM as a "gold standard" model to be emulated by the rest of the country.

Badly hit by the massive floods of 2013, which exposed the weaknesses of its emergency response mechanism and its lack of preparedness, the Terengganu district, however, had emerged relatively unscathed this time around.

After the costly lessons of the previous floods, the district took great steps to improve their emergency response planning, down to the last detail. It was reported that preparation work started as early as March last year.

They even built three concrete rinks in strategic locations as basic helicopter landing pads for the army and other rescue and relief teams.

The preparations did not stop there - leaflets with evacuation and safety information were distributed to the people while an emergency drill was conducted to prepare the community for the floods.

These efforts were initiated and led by Air Putih assemblyman Wan Hakim Wan Mokhtar who rallied Kemaman district officer Datuk Mustapha Khalid.

Commending Wan Hakim and Mustapha for their efforts, Dr Soh nevertheless points out that this should be the norm, not the exception.

"Emergency management is a dynamic process of preparing for, mitigating; responding to, and recovering from an emergency which includes training personnel, testing equipment, co-ordinating activities, conducting drills, practices and exercises.

"We need to prepare for emergency in normalcy, and in emergency prepare for a quick return to normalcy," he stresses.

Crucially, it is the responsibility of the relevant federal government agencies and officers at the state and district levels - as the administration representative of the NSC - in co-operation with the state government, to ensure that the country's policy and mechanism for national disaster and relief management is implemented at the grassroots level.

Dr Soh believes the lackadaisical attitude towards disaster management of the government agencies should be traced back to their leadership.

In Kemaman, Wan Hakim reportedly had even monitored the river levels in his constituency and calculated how long it would take for different areas to start flooding once the water started to rise.

"We have government agencies responsible for this, what were they doing?" Dr Soh argues.

This is why having the right person in the leadership role is important, he reiterates. "You need the best person there, someone knowledgeable, decisive and in touch with the people and the issues on the ground.

"A leader must be willing to take responsibility as soon as one takes command. In a disaster area, everything is fluid and depends on the situation, so you always need to go with the flow.

"To be able to do this, the leader also needs to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn. Most important is that he or she needs to go down to the ground."

It is also crucial that "the leaders" are able to take "at-incident time" command quickly, to reinforce order and minimise damage or loss of lives.

"He or she needs to analyse the situation quickly - whether it is a major or minor disaster - and react to the situation fast.

As a commander, you need to take command of a crisis, or the crisis will take command of you," says Dr Soh, who, after his retirement in 1999, was appointed by the Asian Productivity Organisation in Japan as a "fire expert" for Asia-Pacific.

He feels the lack of coordination during the recent floods are symptomatic of the entrenched working culture of our civil service and related agencies.

"Our problem is many government agencies and departments are so patriarchal. There are too many yes-men and they don't know how to take action without being told what to do. They are also used to working in isolation, like warlords, instead of sharing information with each other. In an emergency, you cannot do that. You need to bring everyone in on one unified command platform."

This is where training is important, and they need to learn to work with others, Dr Soh adds.

A change in culture is needed if we are to prepare effectively for disasters and emergencies in future.

"If different departments continue to be compartmentalised and work in isolation, we will have the same issues again when disaster strikes."

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