Indonesia: Preparing to Save Lives

13 July, 2012
Participants in the earthquake simulation exercise held in Padang earlier this year. Credit: Jakarta Rescue
Participants in the earthquake simulation exercise held in Padang earlier this year. Credit: Jakarta Rescue

Indonesia is sometimes referred to as nature’s laboratory for natural disasters. Frequent earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, floods, whirlwinds and drought ensure that the country is regularly in the top five of the global list of countries most affected by disasters.

When a devastating 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck the Province of West Sumatra in September 2009, international search-and-rescue crews scrambled to the provincial capital, Padang, to help. More than 135,000 houses were severely damaged, with hundreds of people trapped inside. Within the first 24 hours after the earthquake, emergency services and national search-and-rescue teams rescued most of the 300 survivors, but the number of people who died was four times that figure. The authorities wondered: could more lives have been saved?

“The response in the first 48 to 72 hours after a disaster is critical,” says Rajan Gengaje, acting Head of OCHA Indonesia and a veteran in disaster response. “If it is swift, well facilitated and expertly orchestrated, more lives will be saved.”

Building national capacities to respond quickly to disasters and save the maximum number of lives is an important focus of OCHA’s work. Nearly three years after the earthquake struck West Sumatra, some 240 international and national search-and-rescue specialists from 26 countries converged on Padang again, this time to run a simulation exercise of a major earthquake disaster in which local and international emergency teams worked together.

Simulation exercises like this are a regular part of the work of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), a body founded in 1991 and dedicated to urban search and rescue and operational field coordination. The aim is to familiarize international search-and-rescue teams and host countries with the INSARAG guidelines and methodology, and to practice coordination and cooperation between the teams.

“These simulations allow us to test the relevance and efficacy of our guidelines, which are really agreed procedures for saving lives,” says Winston Chang of INSARAG. “Just as important, the exercises are useful in assessing whether national agencies and partners are prepared to respond to a disaster.”

For Indonesia’s national search-and-rescue agency, BASARNAS, the exercise exposed the sheer complexity of coordinating a response to a major disaster.

“The huge number of actors and the logistics involved, the need for timely and accurate information… dealing with any one of these, let alone all simultaneously, can be overwhelming for a young agency like ours,” observes Pak Abdul Haris Achadi, the Head of Technical Cooperation at BASARNAS. “What we got out of the INSARAG exercise was the realization that there’s still a lot to be done on our side.”

BASARNAS was established as an autonomous agency just three years ago, and it is still finding its feet in a context of extreme vulnerability. Last year, for example, there were over 270 tremors measuring 5.0 and above on the Richter scale across the country. Halfway through 2012, there have already been more than 180 earthquakes on a similar scale.

Pak Achadi adds: “We are powerless to prevent natural disasters, but we can certainly do something about the way we respond to them. The better prepared we are, the more lives we are likely to save when a disaster strikes.”

Ultimately, that was the key message of the INSARAG simulation exercise: Preparedness saves lives.