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EMS: preparing for every disaster
08 April 2008

The EMS is beefing up its personnel ahead of the world cup

The head of the City's emergency management services is looking to the future and is building Joburg's capacity to handle any disaster come the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

EMS chief, Dr Audrey Gule
EMS chief, Dr Audrey Gule

FORESEEING disaster before it happens makes disaster management an exacting discipline. But it is in planning for such situations, that the chaff is quickly separated from the wheat.

Johannesburg's emergency management services (EMS) is leaving nothing to chance in preparing for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, and is learning new lessons from the best in the field.

EMS chief, Dr Audrey Gule, says that the unit is taking best practice experiences from the United States, Italy, Greece and Germany and applying this to Johannesburg. Gule, a qualified medical doctor, is well aware that poor emergency planning combined with a natural or manmade disaster, can quickly turn a terrible event into a tragedy.

Thousands could lose their lives; even more people may be incapacitated through injury. It is then that swift action is needed.

Gule was particularly impressed by Rome's disaster management centre, which she believes to be one of the best in the world. The EMS hopes to establish twinning agreements with a number of international emergency management services of this calibre.

During her fact-finding visits, one message particularly came to the fore: a multi-disciplinary approach, spanning all sectors, departments and municipalities, was the answer. Gule cites as an example the funeral of Pope John Paul II, which was attended by an estimated three million people. It went smoothly because of the multi-disciplinary approach of the Italian authorities.

"That's the vision around disaster management for us - to have a multi-disciplinary disaster management interface at the world-class disaster management centre that will be built in Martindale."

The tender to build the centre is out and work will begin soon.

Simulating disasters
Practising for various potential disasters was another key aspect stressed by Rome, Gule says. The EMS has already undertaken a number of small simulation operations in all its regions, but the time has come to stage two big rescue events.

Members of the EMS engaged in a joint training exercise with other units
Members of the EMS engaged in a joint training exercise with other units

Two major disaster simulations, involving every City agency, will take place sometime this year. Later in the year, a plane crash simulation will also be staged at OR Tambo International Airport, involving Johannesburg and neighbouring Ekurhuleni.

"The key is to engage and work together," says Gule, clearly excited about the prospect of so much action.

But for practise to make perfect the necessary manpower and skills are vital. One of Gule's key performance areas will be to grow the EMS skills base, and Johannesburg is about to embark on a major partnership with the 911 Foundation in the United States to look at widening the EMS base.

For its part, Athens, in Greece, offered excellent advice on retaining institutional knowledge and skills once the major event is over, Gule says. "They ensured their institutional knowledge was not lost by employing these people in key sectors afterwards."

Spreading capability
Indeed, the EMS has already started strengthening interfaces across all sectors. Over 1 000 Johannesburg metro police department (JMPD) officers have already been trained in level three first aid. Likewise, the City's healthcare services will be strengthened to create a link to the EMS.

All units will be able to perform first aid
All units will be able to perform first aid

In addition, Joburg will acquire its own fleet of 15 ambulances this year to complement the existing provincial ambulance service. Another 10 will be bought in 2009. It has also grown its emergency management technician (EMT) base, with 278 to be trained this year and another 150 next year.

A poison information desk, in partnership with the University of Cape Town, will also be launched soon.

In terms of supporting infrastructure, equipment and vehicle replacement programmes will bring advancements in technology to complement the human effort, Gule says. New fire engines, mobile emergency centres, skid and water rescue vehicles will bring the fleet up to date while new "jaws of life" equipment will also be brought in.

"The emphasis is on incident command." The EMS also has mutual aid agreements in place with all neighbouring municipalities in the Gauteng province, and all specialist teams will be shared between municipalities.

"Emergency management is a provincial resource," Gule points out.

With globalisation and free trade, two particularly nasty international risks – terrorism and biological warfare - have had to be added to emergency management defences, especially as these risks seem to be amplified during global sports events.

The EMS is getting ready to rescue people in distress during the 2010 FIFA World Cup
The EMS is getting ready to rescue people in distress during the 2010 FIFA World Cup

Although an expensive capability, the EMS has already trained 56 individuals in terrorism and biological warfare. Training is done with the assistance of United States expertise and the South African National Defence Force.

Hazardous material technicians have also been added to the growing specialist base. So far, 20 such technicians have been trained and 28 fire stations across the City now offer this dedicated service.

Swift water-rescue teams are another specialist unit that has been introduced, in this case to stem the tide of drownings, with children especially vulnerable.

To improve its training capacity, the EMS has launched three new faculties: the special medical academy in Florida trains paramedics in partnership with the University of Johannesburg; Rietfontein has the fire, hazardous material and rescue training facility; and in Brixton, a commercial facility engaging the private sector in the emergency management field, has opened.

"This is an external engagement with the outside, offering emergency management training courses to capacitate corporations."

Gule plans on bringing everyone on board. "We also have a responsibility to build [EMS] capacity locally." EMS officials have already completed fact-finding missions to the municipalities of Sekhukhune and Matola in Mozambique to help them set up proper rescue and emergency facilities.

Stadium management
One thing is sure, crowd control, crowd evacuation and mass casualty management will be slick operations, ingrained in EMS officers, by the time the first football supporter sets foot on the city's soil. Another Ellis Park tragedy will not be allowed, Gule confirms. "A commitment has been made by the City post-Ellis Park not to lose people again in this manner."

The EMS has created a new unit, an events management team consisting of representatives from all the key agencies, to assist the City's events management unit to plan and prepare for all large gatherings. "Lots of work is currently going into this but we need to elevate it even more."

Gule says park-and-ride facilities will become important tools to control the influx of crowds into stadiums. "If we expect significant numbers that's the road we should go." And spectator education is equally important, she believes.

A recent gathering of about 90 000 people at the Johannesburg Stadium, which only has a 40 000 capacity, is a case in point, Gule feels. Crowds were drawn to attend an all-night vigil called the Night of Bliss, hosted by religious healer pastor Chris Oyakhilome. Oyakhilome also has a church in Randburg, the Christ Embassy Church.

While EMS staff worked a 12-hour shift, the South African Police Service - tasked with crowd control - was under-manned, leading to the stadium being filled far beyond its capacity.

FIFA guidelines
FIFA has its own set of safety guidelines for stadiums and requires a 2 percent evacuation capability from the City. Gule is striving to make the mass casualty management capability of EMS even higher than the required percentage.

This is where the events management team has to kick in strongly, ensuring that the event organiser complies with the City's regulations in terms of security, safety and related issues. However, Gule admits that non-compliance by event organisers is still a problem.

And while a national sports and events bill provides the legal requirements ensuring all buildings and stadiums comply with international safety standards, the EMS is looking into drafting an event management by-law that deals specifically with the City's compliance issues.

Strict building codes guide the construction of all buildings and temporary structures. The fire control division of the EMS inspects all buildings and temporary structures before an event. "We started beefing-up our skills capacity two years ago with an additional 25 fire inspectors trained last year. This year another 15 will be added to the team."

Community involvement
Above all, Gule feels everyone has the right to live in a safe community, and while the EMS is institutionally tasked to achieve this goal, safety is everyone's business.

Crews from the City's EMS will be on call for the world cup
Crews from the City's EMS will be on call for the world cup

Yet again, Gule aspires to Rome's emergency management model as far as community involvement is concerned. "Their early warning community link was very good – they made it a living tool." Come 2010, similar early warning communication links between the EMS and the community will be in place, she promises.

Already, the City's urban renewal plan and community involvement in general has played a role in decreasing the occurrence of disasters, especially fires, in high risk areas. The Volunteer Training Programme will be a key community effort during the World Cup. Up to 2 200 volunteers will be deployed during the event and the EMS hopes to have a community emergency response team in every ward come 2010.

Besides being an emergency link with the EMS, these teams will be trained in first aid, disaster management and basic fire fighting.

"Mobilising the community has been very rewarding for us. We have seen a clear reduction in EMS-related incidents."

Building basic first aid teams at high schools will also receive attention this year. Gule hopes that all government schools and at least 50 percent of private schools will have such life skills programmes in place by the end of the year. The EMS will be training teachers who, in turn, will train schoolchildren so that skills remain in the system even after children have matriculated.

In addition, the Professional Voluntary Core, a group of paramedics, doctors and nurses working for the City in their spare time, is set to get going soon. This group will not only bring much-needed professional skills across a variety of disciplines but will also be deployed to train volunteer groups.

"Our objective, come 1 April 2010, is to have a core volunteer professional service that can operate without any EMS assistance, doubling our capacity across the city."

All these and other efforts are aimed at making the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ one of the safest and best-prepared football events ever to be held. But, "above all it is about us [the EMS] delivering a world-class service to the community in the long term".

Gule's pet project is to develop women in this male-dominated field. "A key legacy for me is making sure that women are able to grow and play in emergency management." If she can get together an all-female team for the next Take a girl-child to school project, she will see this as a measure of how far she has come in achieving this goal.

But at the end of the day, her vision is to intensify the City's emergency services into a slick, professional outfit.

"We have a responsibility to strengthen our operations, improve our emergency response times, and enhance the transportation and care of our patients."

The EMS walked away with three awards during the recent Rand Show. It received a public service and utility award; a gold certificate for most interactive exhibition stand; and a platinum award for the most interactive display. The theme was community safety, with individuals of all ages able to interact with a number of exhibits.

The EMS and 2010 at a glance:

  • To date over 1 000 Johannesburg metro police officers have been trained in level 3 first aid;
  • The City will acquire its own fleet of at least 25 dedicated ambulances;
  • By 2010, 2 200 community volunteers will be trained; and
  • Already 56 individuals have been trained in dealing with terrorism and biological warfare.

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Last Updated on 12 May 2008