[OPINION] While the world was shaking
When the 6.1 magnitude earthquake jolted Luzon on Monday, April 22, I found myself putting to practice the infamous triumvirate of security actions I learned in grade school: duck, cover, and hold.
The fluorescent tubes flickered across the floor, as my colleagues and I hid under our respective desks, and shouts of worry and signs of distress and anxiety became evident. My heart was pounding tremendously. I was at work in a high-rise building in Manila.
It was around 5:11 pm, and with my knees bent, my world swayed back and forth as if I was floating in the middle of the ocean with no life vest on. It was horror. I’ve never felt that vulnerable before.
After about 30 seconds, and when the movement momentarily halted, I waited for the emergency alarm to sound. But it never came. I approached the officer who was standing just a few meters away from me.
“Sir, when are we going to use the stairs?” I said calmly. “We have to get out of the building.”
“There’s still no advisory from management yet,” he said. “We have to wait a little longer.”
Dismayed by his response, I returned to my small embankment under my desk. The company-issued laptop was still on, and the coffee I was enjoying just moments ago turned as cold as did my sweat brought by adrenaline flowing through my whole body.
But after about 20 seconds, I headed toward the officer for the second time. I was on survival mode.
“Kuya, we have to exit the building,” I uttered. “There could be aftershocks!”
“You can go ahead,” he responded while holding a two-way radio.
“But how about the others?” I said. There was silence on his part.
Then, I tightly held my phone and hurtled towards the exit. I left my bag thinking that I’d be able to run faster. And I did.
While I was going down the stairs during the fleeting countdown of floor numbers all the way to the ground floor, a tornado of thoughts ruled my mind. They arrived and departed like scenes in a film – temporal fragments of pictures fading into the unknown.
How about my family? Are they safe? What’s going to happen to my friends, my laptop, our dogs, our car at home? Is the building going to collapse? San Andreas. Thriller Netflix movies. Tsunami in Japan. Dwayne Johnson. Survivor. Is she okay? Could it turn out to be “The Big One?” Why is it just me in the emergency exit? Why were the others prevented from leaving? Is it because I insisted?
I ran to safety at one side of a wide open road and joined a pack of people like me who were confused about what could happen next. They were on their phones, talking to their loved ones, trying to check on them even if they were just about 180 kilometers away from the epicenter of the tremor.
As I realized that it was not an earthquake exercise but a real-life one, I asked myself: why didn’t we implement the evacuation procedure? Where have all the drills, preparations, and talks gone? Weren't we supposed to have deserted the building by then? (READ: Earthquake tips: What to do before, during, and after)
In the aftermath of the temblor, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) Industry Employees Network (BIEN) called out firms for not evacuating employees following the earthquake: “We call on the government to enforce the new occupational safety and health standards law (RA 1105) and penalize companies who have violated the safety standards putting workers’ lives at great risk…Keeping business as usual in the midst of this life-threatening situation is not only illegal; it is utterly inhumane.”
We know that BPO companies have to perform at their best to compete with other organizations. Putting a stop to operations even for an hour or so can have direct consequences on the rating of the quality of service they offer, as well as on their image as dependable and efficient hubs for business.
Of course, there are technical requirements and standards that must be met before a need for evacuation is declared. But is it worth putting hundreds or thousands of lives on the line with such an approach?
Yes, we’ve been able to successfully capture the first image of a black hole after years of vigorous research and study aided by an army of about 200 scientific minds and experts from different parts of the globe, but one fact remains: humanity still doesn’t have the capacity to know with certainty when and where the next earthquake will strike.
The possibility of the arrival of more powerful aftershocks is always present. Unlike typhoons, earthquakes erupt without a hint. We know that building managers and structural engineers implement the latest possible technology in their respective areas to monitor earthquake activities with the support of their owners and financiers, but we cannot predict next moves.
Filipinos are a resilient people, but an earthquake is not one to laugh about. Earthquakes remind us of how ephemeral our lives are. Photos that prove a drill has been conducted by a company become irrelevant during an actual shake. Memes on Facebook making fun of this catastrophe should be deleted in cyberspace.
We need courageous and compassionate people to call the shots; not everything should depend on numbers or figures or scales. Leaders have to communicate to employees or workers in detail and with transparency what should be done during an emergency to keep their trust.
If there are shortcomings and lapses, they should be professionally disclosed and discussed in a proper forum with a spirit of humility with no excuses. This is true not just in BPO firms, but also in malls, supermarkets, and other establishments.
We only have one chance, and those in authority must do everything in their power to protect lives. Safety is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s a blatant disrespect of workers to directly or indirectly abandon the drill practices and bar them from exiting the building during a quake, and then observe business-as-usual shortly afterwards.
There were reports that penalties could be slapped by government on companies proven to have erred in the handling of the turmoil last week.
Let this be a learning experience for everyone to unite and formulate adjustments in the existing policies and guidelines on emergency situations especially during an earthquake.
After all, there is no perfect organization and we’re all in pursuit of happiness, security, and peace in this life – in whatever form. – Rappler.com
*JC Ibarra is the pseudonym of the author who works at a BPO firm. So as not to put at risk employment, s/he requested that his/her identity not be revealed.