Officers in the Australian Emergency Services have an incident management skill set that makes them valuable assets not just in Australia but also overseas, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. They bring experience, systems, structure and methodology that when combined with local custom knowledge and ingrained community resilience can deliver a successful outcome for people, communities and countries.
Over the past 3 years I have been fortunate enough to work for the Australian government on 2 separate occasions as a disaster risk reduction/disaster risk management specialist in the Pacific region. In January 2017 I commenced a 6-month deployment to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), taking what I had learned and developed over 30+ years as a firefighter and emergency management professional and applying that knowledge to the RMI National Disaster Management Office (NDMO). The success of that mission led to a further opportunity and in July 2019 I completed 15 months in Vanuatu filling a similar position as part of the Australia Assists program. The 2 countries presented very different environments and opportunities however my overall objective was similar on each deployment – to adapt my skillset to the Country involved and make a positive difference building the capability of the NDMO.
Prior to deploying to RMI my career had been almost exclusively with Fire & Rescue New South Wales so naturally I had very little or no experience whatsoever in dealing with climate change adaption, drought, volcanos, cyclones, earthquakes or tsunami. These however were among the major challenges that I faced overseas. The ability to adapt the technical skills I have in emergency management and risk reduction to these very different environments, often with limited resources, was paramount to the success of both deployments. Just as important however was the adaptability of my leadership and management style to the local culture so that I could build relationships, integrate, influence and assist the NDMO, government departments, NGO partner agencies and communities.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands
RMI consists of 34 coral atolls located about half-way between Australia and Hawaii. There is only 181 square kilometres of land spread across 1.9 million square km of ocean making distance and isolation an issue not just from the rest of the world but within RMI itself. The best-known atoll is the now uninhabited Bikini, where nuclear testing was carried out by the United States in the 1940’s and 50’s. Half the estimated population of 60,000 live on the main island and capital of Majuro Atoll where I was based.
Climate Change, global warming and rising sea levels are a huge risk to RMI as the average height above sea level across the entire country is 2.1m. Climate change adaption is a primary concern for RMI and while long term solutions to counter rising sea levels were being developed and implemented during my time there, the northern atolls were suffering their third drought in four years and sea inundation was a constant threat with every storm.
Together with the newly appointed Director NDMO we focused on 3 things…
- Implementing a defined strategic direction for the NDMO
- Systematic development of policy, procedures, reporting methodology and governance measures
- Increased response capability including establishing a functional National Emergency Operations Centre.
We were basically starting from scratch, but within 6 months the NDMO had a roadmap to improve capability and we had already achieved some of the goals that had been established.
While RMI was mainly about preparation and planning, Vanuatu was almost all about response actions. According to the World Risk Report – Vanuatu had the highest disaster risk out of the 172 countries covered by the World Risk Index in 2018. It’s location on the Pacific Ring of Fire means that it is highly exposed to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides. Then of course there is the cyclone season. I had previously responded to Vanuatu as part of the New South Wales Urban Search and Rescue / Disaster Assistance Response Team immediately after Tropical Cyclone Pam struck in 2015 and saw first-hand how destructive a Category 5 cyclone could be. By comparison the two cyclone seasons I experienced living there were relatively benign.
The first disaster after my arrival in March 2018 was the eruption of the volcano on the island of Ambae, 300km North of Port Vila. This volcano had also erupted in late 2017 resulting in the evacuation of all 11,000 residents, by boat, to the island of Santo some 80km away. The residents were repatriated shortly thereafter when volcanic activity subsided, however a recurring cycle of eruption, followed by a short period of relative inactivity continued.
The eruption caused large volumes of volcanic ash to be emitted up to 12km into the atmosphere that covered the island up to 30cm deep in some areas. The ash is metallic, heavy and can weaken buildings causing structure collapse. It contaminates the water supply and kills off all the plant life. Almost all people on this island are subsistence farmers who live off the land and this event rendered areas of Ambae uninhabitable.
The National government declared a State of Emergency in April 2018 that remained in place until 26 November. Thousands of people had to move to the geographical extremities of the island into temporary relocation camps. The next cycle of eruptions in July resulted in a compulsory total island evacuation by sea using small inter island ferries and landing craft. For several months after the evacuation NDMO coordinated the response to around 8500 people living in temporary shelter on islands other than their own.
Developing a solution that catered for all people and implementing that plan was extremely challenging and added to the complexity was the fact that citizens had been evacuated to 4 separate islands each with its own customs and traditions that had to be acknowledged. At the time of writing the Ambae volcano has been in a period of relatively stable activity for 8 months and approximately 3500 people have returned to their homes.
For 8 months I had concentrated almost exclusively on Ambae and the ramifications of a long term, on-going disaster response, but on 5 December a 7.6 mag earthquake with its epicenter approximately 200km South of the island of Aneityum in Southern Vanuatu occurred. The earthquake was very shallow at 10km depth and created a tsunami that was between 1.5 to 3 m high when it hit Aneityum 15 minutes later.
Vanuatu has no tsunami warning buoys and the only alert the people on Aneityum had was the severe and prolonged shaking experienced from the earthquake. Through community education programs the vast majority of residents near the coastline evacuated to higher ground prior to the impact. The sea surge flowed up to 2 km upstream maintaining a height of over 3m in some rivers and streams, placing people who were some distance from the ocean in great danger No one was killed or severely injured despite many houses being inundated and several totally destroyed. This is testament to the impact that education programs aimed at the local communities, endorsed by the NDMO and delivered by NGO partners can have on preparedness and response to disaster events.
Our attention then turned to the island of Ambrym, which has 2 active volcanos. The majority of volcanos in Vanuatu generally sit at Alert Level 2 (indicating major unrest) on a scale from 1 to 5. On 15 December 2018 this was raised to Level 3 – Minor Eruption, when a flank eruption occurred.
Volcanic eruptions can cause severe local seismic activity, and this was the case on Ambrym, with frequent strong earthquakes causing several cracks to open up running between the volcano and the South Eastern coast, lifting a large plate of the island up between 1 and 3 metres. A similar event had occurred many years before (1950’s), where the cracks were a precursor to a lava flow that destroyed a village and caused many people to be permanently relocated. In this instance there was no lava flow however the village of Paamal was severely affected and remains uninhabitable due to the cracks in the landscape.
I had never seen a volcano before I went to Vanuatu nor had I felt an earthquake. I had only ever seen a tsunami on television, but the response to each incident was not dissimilar to what I knew. The Prevention, Preparedness, Response, Recovery framework is just as useful in the Pacific as it is in Australia and the basic principles of incident management remain the same. Establishing a multi-agency incident management model was the priority to share information, define roles and responsibilities and agree on an incident action plan and strategy to manage the incident.
For me the deployments were also about personal development as they have given me a different perspective on life. I return with a wealth of knowledge and life experiences that cannot be replicated. I have engaged with locals on all levels from the government decision makers to communities in disaster affected areas. It has both prepared me for anything professionally and been a great opportunity personally.
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