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‘It takes a village to sustain safety and security’

Lou Gepuela

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‘It takes a village to sustain safety and security’
Barangay West Crame in San Juan City holds a community-wide fire drill to test the neighborhood's response to future disasters

MANILA, Philippines – Barangay West Crame is located just behind the Philippine National Police (PNP) national headquarters, but that does not spare the neighborhood from risks associated with urban communities in the Philippines.

This neighborhood has certain unique characteristics – such as its compact rectangular layout, and having most structures made primarily of light materials like wood – which makes it an easy target for residential fires that can easily spread.

The Child-Centered Urban Disaster Risk Reduction Project – a partnership between Plan International, the Center for Disaster Preparedness, and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – saw these and decided to help address such vulnerabilities, with an eye towards the specific needs and rights of children and other vulnerable groups.

Testing community response

It is 7 am, the start of another quiet, lazy Saturday in March, which is Fire Prevention Month. Most residents are busy tending to their chores, while some have barely tasted their morning coffee. The calm is shattered by a scream from a resident running frantically on the street, shouting the age-old Filipino warning: “Sunog, sunog!” (There’s a fire, there’s a fire!)

At the nearby tanod (Neighborhood Watchman) outpost, those on duty hear the message radioed from the neighborhood emergency operations center, and get onboard their small fire truck. Minutes later, it arrives at the scene, and their team deploys to put out the fire.

Assisting them moments later are fire trucks from local fire volunteers, as well as the professional fire officers of the Bureau of Fire Protection. Several individuals with matching uniforms can be seen taking care of the wounded, directing traffic, and ushering away onlookers. (READ: What to do when trapped inside a burning building

Barangay West Crame is fortunate, since they have a community public-address system that is immediately utilized to warn residents to keep the streets clear for responders, and advises them that local officials are busy identifying where the fire is located.

DRILL. Responders rush to contain a simulated fire in Barangay West Crame, San Juan City. Photo by Lou Gepuela / Rappler

In a side street, a child lies motionless, having been hit by a vehicle. At the other side of the neighborhood, residents hastily walk through a crowded, smoky alley and into safety. At a nearby chapel, others gather quietly among the pews, looking about for acquaintances.

While all this is happening, a few residents continue with their business, walking the streets or sitting quietly in their houses, unfazed by the sudden activity. It is, after all, just a fire drill. (READ: Here’s a challenge: Take disaster preparedness seriously

Community-based disaster risk reduction

In accordance with Republic Act 10121, initial crisis response is the responsibility of the Barangay Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Committee (BDRRMC). The City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (CDRRMC) assists by augmenting resources such as providing additional fire trucks, food, water, and shelter, and only steps in to take the lead if the barangay disaster committee is no longer able to cope with the situation.  (READ: The role of LGUs, local councils during disasters

“Unang-una. dapat makita natin na meron kayong command presence,” says Enrique Pineda of the Valenzuela City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, one of the invited observers to today’s drill. (First, we have to see that you have command presence.)  

“Dapat nandiyan kayo.‘Pag nakita nila kayo, ‘ay, may tutulong sa amin.’” (You have to be there. When the victims see you, they can say, ‘someone is going to help us’.)

FIRST AID. Volunteer responders tend to an injured comrade. Photo by Lou Gepuela / Rappler

Community disaster volunteers, their identical uniform shirts making it easy to identify them, shepherd residents to nearby open spaces and evacuation centers. A nearby open-air basketball court has an enclosed corner to ensure privacy for breastfeeding mothers. Responders huddle in small groups, discussing their next steps. Individuals bearing different identification cards and shirt colors run to provide first aid, food, water, and other emergency assistance

After one hour, the exercise is concluded. The sirens grow silent, the blinking lights are shut off, and the residents of Barangay West Crame return to their respective homes.

Lessons learned

The community gathers at the covered basketball court in the center of the neighborhood to listen to the evaluators, as they share their own personal experiences. Barangay West Crame is lucky: it has not had a fire since 2014. However, the residents are not taking any chances.

Evacuation routes were tested and it was discovered that one route is insufficient for the number of residents in that area, while another observed that there was only one village official manning the emergency operations center.

DANGER. Electrical wiring in this condition are a hazard. Photo by Lou Gepuela / Rappler  

A resident observed that the neighborhood electrical wiring is a hazard, and that efforts should be made with the electric distribution company to reduce this risk.

Senior Police Officer 1 Rommel Lati of the San Juan City Police Community Relations Office, had more concrete recommendations in light of the drill.

“Yung mga stalled vehicles, very crucial ‘yon…mabigat po yung nakabalandra lang yung sasakyan,” says SPO1 Lati, who recommends that vehicles be towed instead of becoming an additional hazard in the event of a fire or other emergency. (The stalled vehicles are very crucial. It is difficult if they are impeding traffic there.)

All the insights were noted, and the residents are asked what they learned from the day’s exercise. An evaluator reads from a summary of questionnaire answers:

“Kailangan alerto lagi at mag-ingat, kailangan laging handa sa mga sakuna.” (We should always be alert and take care, we should always be ready for disasters.) –

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