[OPINION] A disaster in a disaster: When too many orgs help out in emergencies

Rachelle Anne L. Miranda

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[OPINION] A disaster in a disaster: When too many orgs help out in emergencies
Chaos is not only limited to the impacts of disasters. More often than not, the large number of organizations with different goals and protocols can result in operational problems.

In complex emergencies and disaster response, sometimes good intentions are not enough. These situations require integrated response from various actors: government agencies, non-government organizations, civil society organizations, people’s organizations, and humanitarian organizations from the local and international community.

Imagine a situation where there is a lack of integration among these groups. That’s a disaster in a disaster. 

Chaos is not only limited to the impacts of disasters. More often than not, the large number of organizations with different mandates, vertical structures, policies, protocols, communication means, and feedback mechanisms can result in unprecedented operational problems. (READ: EXPLAINER: Who’s supposed to be in charge during disasters?)

Filipino culture

The outpour of assistance in disaster situations is part of the Filipino culture of altruism – or pagmamalasakit and damayan. However, this outpour can only be significant if the assistance meets the real needs of the communities. 

With the use of different platforms of information sharing such as broadcast and social media, it is easier to disseminate updates on disaster events. But with the redundancy of information, this leads media to only focus attention on the most visible effects of disasters. They paint a picture of the situation on-scene, and while it is true, it is not true to all. Likewise, this information oftentimes misconstrues that authorities are always in need of assistance. (READ: [OPINION] Planning and preparation: Unglamorous, yet most critical, in disasters)

Several cases in past disasters suggest that organizations are really active and responsive in helping the most affected communities. However, in most of the cases, these organizations’ assistance resulted in the duplication of efforts; surplus of resources; cost inefficiency; the job not fitting the technical skill or expertise; and unsafe operations where “freelancers” and volunteers are exposed to more harm. 

Thus, the real challenge in working with a large number of organizations for disaster response is ensuring that there is an on-scene management system that guarantees an integrated approach, where government and non-government agencies work together interdependently. There should be no competition between the government and non-government groups – only collaboration, coordination, and cooperation.

So how can organizations and volunteers maximize their good intentions?

The first essential and crucial step among organizations is to understand the elements of response in the Philippines. They need to understand that local chief executives are the officials responsible for setting priorities and providing guidance; that the emergency operations center (EOC) and response cluster are key for coordination on the operational level; and that the incident management team are for the command and control of incidents at the tactical level.

Organizations also need to recognize that at the onset of disasters, the primary responsibility emanates from the local level, and that the escalation of the augmentation of support relies on the coordination mechanisms of RA10121 or the Philippine DRRM Act of 2010. Most organizations want to immediately be on-ground to help, but this is not always necessary. For the effective and systematic management of incidents, they need to coordinate first with the EOC before going on-scene.

Coordination with the right authorities gives you access to the most recent reports and the overall picture of what happened and what needs to be done. It is then your role to determine whether these identified needs are aligned with your mandate and that you can be mobilized for additional support. 

The common misconception when adhering to protocols and systems of government is that organizations will lose their identity or mandate. But this is not the case. The government acknowledges that it has no monopoly over disaster response in general, though organizations still need to recognize the authority and leadership of the government when managing incidents. After all, the overall responsibility is still on the “owner of the incident,” who is usually holding public office. Your public office is your public trust. (READ: Itogon Tragedy: Disaster response gone wrong)

Next, check in with the incident management team (IMT). The IMT ensures the safety of volunteers and organizations throughout the operations. It also recommends the assignment of resources based on the organizations’ capability. 

The challenge when organizations “freelance” is that they only see what they want to see and help only when it is convenient. The IMT, however, looks at the entire picture. They know what resources are required, needed, and are already on-hand. The IMT also knows which locations need more assistance or is appropriate to your assistance.

Again, your organization will not lose its identity. The IMT will only lead you to where your capability fits the need. Once you are provided with a tactical assignment, implement the plan through the operations and provide feedback to the IMT for documentation purposes. 

Lastly and most importantly, don’t become a disaster tourist. You are there to help, so don’t expect disaster situations to be pretty. Expect the worst and plan your own safety measures as well. You also cannot take photos of evacuees, especially of children without parental permission, and post them on social media. Be aware of the data privacy law.

The spirit of bayanihan in the Philippines has always been stronger than any disaster, so let’s maximize it and make our good intentions count. – Rappler.com

Rachelle Anne L. Miranda is taking her Masters in Disaster Risk and Resilience from the Ateneo De Manila University. She advocates for systematizing disaster preparedness and response in the Philippines through the implementation of an Incident Command System. Her views and opinions in this article do not reflect the views and opinions of the organizations with which she is affiliated. 


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