Making our airports disaster-ready

In August of 2018, the unprecedented floods in Kerala resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and displaced thousands to relief camps across the state. Cyclone Titli and the subsequent floods that hit Odisha severely damaged property and impacted farmers. The calamity-struck villagers waited for over three months for relief to come their way. Not far away, Indonesia was struck with an earthquake measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale. In the West, North Carolina lost 42 lives due to Hurricane Florence.

No doubt, 2018 has been an arduous year globally. With melting glaciers and rising global temperatures, one can only expect a steady increase in the occurrence of these calamities. While no part of the world is immune to the impact of climate change, South Asia finds itself particularly vulnerable as it is also riddled with developmental challenges. About 85% of the Indian subcontinent is estimated to be vulnerable to disasters accruing to natural calamities.

Disasters most often come uninvited. The occurrence of which is first met with shock, and is subsequently followed by authorities, task forces and volunteers springing into action. In such situations, it is essential to concede the importance of immediate and effective rescue and relief operations.

Here, airports become vital hubs for the inflow of relief equipment, personnel and supplies, and also serve as a route to evacuate victims. They are essentially the entry and exit points through which all relief efforts are undertaken. Unfortunately, what we usually see are swamped officials, a backlog of clearances, slow processing of relief material and throngs of people moving in all directions.

Managing the sheer volume of incoming and outgoing traffic during calamities is not what airports are ideally equipped for. In fact, it demands specialised skill sets that will only come through adequate training and preparedness, or else, chaos ensues.

The date, time or scale of the devastation during natural calamities cannot be chosen by a country. However, its government can make a choice on the speed and quality of emergency response based on the preparedness of its airport. Systems and practices that may seem insignificant in times of normalcy make a big difference during crisis.

For instance, during a disaster, a dedicated hub and suitable equipment must be identified on site for efficient cargo management. Mapping distribution channels in advance enables fair and safe distribution of goods. It is only when Indian airports and their staff are trained to be cognisant of these essentials that they can function efficiently.

Pan-India training

It is commendable that the Airports Authority of India has acknowledged the effectiveness of the ‘Get Airports Ready for Disaster’ (GARD) Programme run by DHL in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme. The primary objective is to provide holistic support in preparing airports against disasters and plugging the gaps that might obstruct seamless operations during emergencies.

More than 40 airports across the world have been assessed and trained in disaster preparedness. This programme has also imparted necessary skills to airport authorities in Guwahati and Chennai.

However, training over 100 Indian airports in disaster preparedness is next to impossible, considering the limited number of trainers available. Therefore, it is necessary to adopt pragmatic and innovative approaches to seamlessly enable training pan-India.

From my experience in undertaking a pilot project on these lines, a rational way of doing this is to train a focus group of subject matter experts and airport authorities, who will, in turn, impart skills to clusters of airports across the country. With the Union government’s ambitious UDAN scheme aiming to put many more airports on India’s aviation map, we must move quickly yet smartly — monitoring, evaluating and upgrading our efforts along the way.

With an alarming increase in the frequency of these disasters, this is an opportune time to equip our airports with appropriate disaster response mechanisms that will complement the efforts of on-ground relief personnel.

The speed of emergency response is dependent on airports, thereby making it critical to fortify the readiness of this component in the country’s disaster relief mechanism. Collaborative planning in good times can further help the hardworking government officials during disaster relief operations.

(The writer is Vice President & Head of Operations, DHL Express India)

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Making our airports disaster-ready

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