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The Importance of Safety in Disaster Response Field Missions

Carlos Miranda Levy in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

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.

Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, JapanIf 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.

Wear Protection

  • Safety glasses or goggles. Prescription glasses or sun glasses are not enough as they do not provide side covering and protection for the eyes from harmful particles.
  • Respiratory masks. N95 grade or higher. Activated carbon or charcoal based masks might also provide additional protection. Do note that although N95 masks are the most commonly available types, there is a whole range of grades which offer additional protection including resistance to oil (which the N95 does not). As a reference, the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health approves seven types of particulate filtering facepiece respirators: N95, N99, N100, R95, P95, P99, P100. These masks should be disposed off and thrown in the garbage after being used as handling them or keeping them around defeats the whole purpose of them. So you must bring a fair supply of them with you to the field to avoid re-using them.
  • Gloves. Shop around for a good combination of water-proof (dry gloves) that provide mechanical hazard (friction, abrasion, puncture, tear, cut), cold/heat, chemical and micro-organism protection. Now remember, the whole purpose of these gloves is to protect your hands from being exposed to hazardous materials, suffer cuts and bruises and at the same time allow you to handle objects, carry stuff around and move debris safely and comfortably, so make sure that your selection is comfortable enough so you don't feel the need to remove them all the time while in the terrain.
  • Cover as much as possible of your body. Long coats, field jackets, hoods, hats, caps, long pants, long sleeve shirts, arm sleeves, etc.

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.

Eat and Drink Safely and Healthy

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.

  • Water and liquids. Only drink water from safe sources or bottled water also from safe sources. Remember that safe in disaster areas means that you can trace its source and how it got to you. When in doubt, make sure the water is boiled for 10 minutes before consumption or use chlorine tablets. liquid bleach drops or iodine pills.
  • Food. Protein bars, cereals, chocolate, Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE's) are ideal for bringing to the field and ensuring proper nutrition. Plus they don't take much space, don't generate much waste and don't gather much attention from those who may be lacking food of their own. Loaf bread is practical, as you can make quick sandwiches with peanut butter and other ingredients and they are both a good source of calories. Can food may be practical, but it's bulky, heavy and then you have to dispose of the cans. Cheese is good as long as it's processed cheese (pasteurized) and is properly packaged so it won't spoil in the conditions of the field.
  • Hydration. Drink lots of water. You have to hydrate yourself. Even in cold temperatures, your body is actively losing water as you move around. Many people forget to drink enough liquids while in the field and end up having headaches and other complications which hinder their capacity to perform and add value to the operations. Monitor your urine. You should be drinking enough water to make your urine be as clear and odorless as possible.

Be Safe and Ready

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:

  • 16 to 32 ounces of water.
  • 3 to 5 protein bars.
  • a fully charged communication device.
  • a flashlight, even if it is the middle of the day.
  • topical antibiotics, painkillers and disinfecting wipes.

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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Always Assess

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.

Additional Images
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Trash in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
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Carlos Miranda Levy's picture

This is just a quick note for additional stuff that needs to be added... I will format and explain later:

Honey, salt (for salt water), garlic, apple cider vinegar.

I also posted this note recently on Facebook. Margarita suggests we compile such a list...

"We should take time to compile a list of all things toxic people don't think about when going into disaster areas: All fluorescent lights contain mercury, insulation material release toxic fumes when burned and contain toxic components as well, smoke detectors contain a small piece of radioactive material which is safe while not exposed - not sure what happens when dozens or hundreds of them are broken and exposed, asbestos is common in older buildings, flame retardants in consumer electronics, plastics and furniture are known to be highly toxic... The list is long and most of those things are not obvious or clearly visible to the naked eye."

The point of all this is that if you show up to a disaster as a rescuer, you leave as a rescuer. If you don't, you become part of the problem and not part of the solution. Protect yourself, take care of yourself and your team, and you will be productive. Know your limitations. Don't do something you are not prepare to handle.

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