Disaster Preparedness – the forewarned are forearmed
By Matunda Nyanchama
The recent disaster in a public school in Kakamega should make us ponder the safety in our institutions, especially schools. Such reflection should lead to better preparedness in preventing and responding to such dangers.
In that tragedy, more than 14 students died while many others were injured in what has been termed a stampede. It is not clear what triggered the chaos!
This kind of loss of lives and injuries is avoidable where schools are well-prepared in the prevention and response to such happenings.
Prevention and effective response to such disasters is realized with effective risk management, planned, implemented and practised through day-to-day processes of institutions such as the school in question.
In the school in question, it is said that the stairs leading into and out of classrooms were narrow and hence could not accommodate all the students coming down the stairs.
Question: was the building designed for the number of students it ended up accommodating? Did the designers and builders ask themselves what could go wrong and whether the design and layout of the building could be amenable to minimizing losses in such eventuality? Did they ask themselves how many people could pass through the stairs at any one time? And were there alternative exits to accommodate such a stampede and rescue/response efforts? ?
The Ministry of Education has published a Safety Standards Manual for schools, complete with specifications for building standards that should be adhered to as a means of assuring safety. Did the designers and builders of the school building follow the elaborate standards and guidelines in the manual?
Did the school have a response plan in place? For example, have school authorities done scenario testing to see how, in the event of such chaos, the situation would be managed? Had the school implemented the guidelines on the manual regarding disaster risk prevention?
Has the school population – teachers, students and support staff – gone through mandatory awareness on how to react to something like what happened?
More questions can be raised regarding the school, and indeed, all schools in Kenya. The answers, or lack thereof, should lead to the betterment of safety in our schools.
Further, the safety manual from the Ministry of Education outlines, among other things, the preparedness required. For instance, it requires that each school has in place a School Safety Committee whose functions, composition, and accountability are clearly outlined.
Additionally, it requires that each school have a disaster reduction and response strategy. This is very detailed as well.
In all, the manual is a testimony to the degree of seriousness with which the government considers safety.
From press reports, it is clear that the plans, if any were in place in the school in Kakamega, failed.
Why? One must ask.
Preparedness is a key cog in disaster risk reduction. Preparedness includes: (a) understanding and internalizing why we need and must implement safety in institutions and other places we find ourselves; (b) putting in place risk-based plans that have identified risks, their impacts and developing associated mitigations to minimize damage should the risks occur; (c) well-defined governance structures and processes, complete with accountability, with respect to how preparedness and response are defined, implemented and continually monitored; (d) a response mechanisms (including effective communication) that would help minimize damage were things to go wrong; (e) regular testing of the plans to ensure they work as defined; and (f) continuous awareness targeted at all parties that are involved.
Awareness is perhaps the most powerful aspect of disaster response. Parties aware of what they need to do when a disaster occurs would respond appropriately and hence minimize damage.
Awareness should be targeted accordingly such that all parties (school management, teaching staff, support staff, and students) get appropriate messages and hence their responsibilities in limiting damage in the case of a disaster.
For institutions like schools, management needs to implement an ongoing awareness programme that includes appropriate testing of response to a disaster, at least once a term. The testing should be precise, collecting data with prescribed targets and actual responses. The information collected during testing should be used to improve the overall programme. If anything, this should be the first order of business at the start of a school term. Had the students in the unfortunate school been drilled on how to respond, it is unlikely that there would have been panic. Without panic, the severity of the stampede would have been low and loss of life and injuries would have been minimal.
As indicated in item (a) above, in-depth understanding of preparedness is essential for the management and leadership of such institutions. As such, to be effective, school management needs substantial in-depth training on the planning, implementation, and management of safety programmes. The Ministry of Education should consider mandatory training for school heads, their deputies and school safety committees. School heads and their deputies should be deemed qualified for and hence assigned responsibilities once they have undergone such mandatory safety training. As well, once a year, school safety committees should undergo at least one week of training to cater for new members of the committees and have the previous members updated on any new developments.
Loss of life is a very painful affair. Not only is it a loss to families, but also to entire communities and the nation at large. The loss is worse where children die at a young age as happened in Kakamega. We will have neither peek into nor a taste of their potential. To be prepared is to be forearmed against such preventable loss!
Dr Matunda Nyanchama (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a Director and Managing Consultant of Agano Consulting (K) Ltd., a Risk Management, Cybersecurity and Business Continuity Management consulting and training firm.