Volunteers to play big role in national emergency response

Thousands of Emiratis and expatriates are to be trained as volunteers as part of a national disaster-response plan unveiled yesterday.

ABU DHABI // Thousands of Emiratis and expatriates are to be trained as volunteers as part of a national disaster-response plan unveiled yesterday. The National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority (NCEMA), the government agency in charge of handling national security threats, unveiled details of the plan on the sidelines of the second Crisis and Emergency Management Conference in Abu Dhabi.

The plan is a first step before legislation for a federal scheme is completed later this year. "Wars and natural disasters which occurred recently and are still happening place on us great responsibilities," said Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, general manager of the NCEMA. "Therefore, we need strategies to deal with these threats and to assess their risks." Besides the mobilisation of a volunteer force, the plan includes completion of a world-class operations centre, a unified framework for classification of emergencies, federal legislation defining the NCEMA's role and international co-operation agreements.

The idea of a volunteer force was raised by the Government in August of last year. It said the "Sanid" (Support) programme would train 15,000 Emiratis and expatriates to respond to natural or man-made disasters in their neighbourhoods. The programme will be a joint effort with the Emirates Foundation, which runs Takatof, the UAE's social volunteering group. Takatof began training volunteers for real-life emergencies almost a year ago using foreign experts such as members of the Swedish Civil Defence League, a non-profit organisation that advises Sweden on emergency management.

Mr al Rumaithi said a law governing the rights and responsibilities of volunteers would be enacted "to preserve everyone's rights". The NCEMA is hoping to co-operate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), its equivalent in the US. Mr al Rumaithi said the agency hoped to reach agreements on this with Fema officials attending the conference, including its chief of staff, Jason McNamara.

A visiting US official yesterday expressed support for the UAE's volunteer initiative. "Community members are a terrific asset, especially with emergency management," said Rachel Jacky, the programme director of the US Department of Homeland Security's community emergency-response teams. "From emergency to emergency, community members will show up and try to help other people. We can try to ignore them, we can try to get rid of them if they show up to be helpful, or we can train them before anything happens."

The NCEMA is also developing the infrastructure necessary for responding to crises. Its current makeshift operations centre will be replaced by June with one that will be "large enough to house all the agencies" involved in crisis response, Mr al Rumaithi said. It will have encrypted communication channels, monitoring centres and videoconference links to other government bodies. In a meeting with Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, the head of NCEMA's board of directors and the UAE's national-security adviser, the agency also discussed a new scheme for classifying emergencies and the appropriate responses.

The NCEMA's emergency-response strategy involves four stages. The first is prevention, by trying to contain threats outside the UAE. The second is preparation through training, drills and the drawing up of plans to respond to a crisis. The third stage involves facing the actual threat. The fourth is reconstruction and rebuilding. Mr al Rumaithi declined to provide technical details of the agency's plan, but said they will probably be included in legislation slated for completion later this year.

He said the NCEMA had just finished reviewing a draft law for a federal plan for responding to emergencies, and it would be forwarded to the relevant authorities "within days". The agency's capabilities were brought into focus last year when it was given the job of co-ordinating the country's response to the H1N1 swine-flu pandemic. Ali Rashed al Nyadi, the director of operations and regional centres at NCEMA, said the pandemic was a valuable learning experience for the agency. The NCEMA issued daily reports, including instructions to government healthcare institutions, and tracked the spread of infections.

Forward planning for the evacuation of UAE pilgrims in Mecca in the event of swine-flu infection was useful in bringing them home during the floods that claimed about 100 lives in Saudi Arabia last year. The Crisis and Emergency Management Conference yesterday focused on the fallout from political crises in the region, such as the demonstrations against the Iranian regime and the potential for sectarian violence in Iraq in the run-up to the March parliamentary elections. It also included a workshop on safety issues in nuclear power plants. It ends tomorrow.

kshaheen@thenational.ae hdajani@thenational.ae