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One of the most common attitudes and mistakes in field operations happens when both volunteers and local stakeholders develop a sense of confidence and safety as they get used to the disaster area. Many assume that the worst has already happened: "it's unlikely another earthquake/tornado/flood/storm will hit the same area twice or anytime soon" seems to be a logical reasoning. In the face of total destruction and major damage, we tend to minimize the possibility of little or big things happening to us. Many of us unconsciously think that even if something happens to us, it would be nothing compared to what's happened to those directly affected by the disaster.
Most of this comes from the fact that disaster areas are often eerie calm and appear to be harmlessly passive even in the middle of busy recovery activity.
And so, relief teams stop wearing their masks, gloves, eye protection and go into field activities without emergency survival kits, personal water drinking supplies, nutrition bars or communication devices. After all, they are just minutes or an hour from camp, right?
But there is no exclusion principle in the randomness of disaster probability. The fact that disaster already struck one place only proves that such a place has a 100% probability of been stricken by disaster. If the area was flooded, it may very well be flooded again in the future; if a tornado or a storm hit it, it may very well be in the path of future weather phenomena; and in the case of earthquakes, aftershocks are common even weeks and months after a large one and can debilitate surviving infrastructure or generate further damage. If anything, having been hit by a disaster can turn following events, unexpected accidents and minor incidents into life threatening and fatal situations.
In addition, regardless of how likely disaster is to strike again, disaster areas are fairly dangerous and host extensive toxic materials which are not visible to or easily recognizable by the untrained eye. The stories and clinical cases of those falling ill after returning from disaster areas, war zones and rescue operations are very well documented. Recent cases portrayed in the media include the respiratory diseases of rescue workers at "the pile" or "ground zero" of the World Trade Center terrorist attack and the so called "Desert Storm diseases" of the veterans of the Gulf War.
If you take a quick look at the pictures of trash and destruction in disaster areas, it is perfectly clear that materials which were not meant to be out in the open are now exposed to the environment and to Sun, wind and weather conditions.
Look again and it will not be hard to identify sources of toxic or harmful materials such as asbestos, mercury, lead, pulverized cement, broken glass, dry mud dust, the interior of insulation panels, refrigerators, photocopiers, laser printers, x-ray machines, fuel tanks, printing and photo printing and press related developing liquids, industrial fluids, etc.
If there was a flood or earthquake, properly stored hazardous material may have been spilled, carried outside their safe storage or containment areas. Such materials as well as sewage water, solid waste, medical waste and garbage in general, may have contaminated surrounding and even far zones and other materials without being easily noted, including farms, crops, water, animals and general consumption products. In addition, small animals may be dead among the debris, decomposing, and other small animals may be feeding on them or spreading diseases and toxic elements around.
Disaster areas may look passively quiet, safe and calm to the level of sacred or inspiring reverence, but they tend to be highly unsafe environments if the proper precautions are not taken, even months after the disaster.
Everyone is welcome to come and provide enabling support and engage in the recovery process and in most cases it is completely safe to do so, if common-sense and basic safety measures are taken. Some suggestions are listed below.
Must of the above listed items can be found in the Do It Yourself (DIY) section of most major hardware stores. Do not look for them in pharmacies or in the gardening department or in clothing stores. You will find much better options and alternatives, and some times even better prices at the DIY section.
Do not take anyone's word on the safety or source of the water and food you consume. As explained above, many people are very loose about safety and - sometimes this is an unconscious response which people trigger to feel that everything will be OK - they will tell you that it's safe to drink this water or consume these vegetables or meat without really being able to guarantee the safety of doing so.
It does not matter where you are going, even it is just around the corner, 15 minutes away or for a quick 1 hour mission, always carry with you the following:
Except for the water, all of the above items fit in a small backpack, saddlebag, pouch bag and even in a belt bag.
You never now when things will go wrong, when disaster will strike again, what conditions you may find out there and pretty often, you want to be ready to deal with extra activities, unexpected requests and needs you may find along the way. A 15 minute errand can turn into a 3-hour mission, a 1-hour mission can turn into a full day challenge rescue operation and if disaster hits again, a road that would normally would take 30 minutes to travel can end up taking 2 days to complete.
For our communication needs in the field, we use MiFi 3G wireless Internet connection and wireless network devices provided by Global Cellular in Japan and XCom Global Devices in USA. The MiFi's allow us to be on-line on the road (while moving on a vehicle) and anywhere with mobile phone coverage, setting up an automatic wireless network for up to 5 team members and enabling us to access the Internet, use e-mail, send pictures and videos and make phone calls and video conferences via Skype.
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Pay attention to your surroundings and to details, do not take unnecessary risks and remain alert at all times. Do not take safety for granted or continuity. Things can change pretty fast. Assess safety and general conditions all the time, time and time again. Even if you have been walking or driving for hours and are near your destination, if it suddenly turns into an unsafe condition, turn around, go back to safety and return later.
Make your own assessment and do not rely entirely on others' assessments. Public, corporate and international reports as well as local rumors and hearsay are not always reliable sources of information and are often biased, skewed or distorted by translation, particular interests, priorities, estimates or lack of knowledge of local culture, true field presence, validation, experience and expertise.
Remember, if you are not safe, you will not be able to provide support or assistance to anyone and may end up becoming a burden yourself. Please wear proper protection at all times and do not remove your eye protection, respiration masks, gloves and proper clothing.