An International 911

By Dr. Keith Martin, MD, The Mark - January 25, 2010

The world needs a central command-and-control centre to respond to disasters quickly and orderly.

Five days after the massive earthquake hit Haiti, little aid was reaching the beleaguered people on the ground. Access to crucial medical care, food, and water was scant. Extractive efforts beyond what the people were doing with shovels and their bare hands were largely non-existent. Haitians, starving, dangerously dehydrated, and exposed to a withering sun, were dying by the thousands. This, despite the fact that large quantities of donated emergency supplies were sitting on the tarmac of the country’s main airport in Port-au-Prince.

Tragically, this scene of weak logistics in the face of devastation and massive need has been played out time and time again. From the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, to the earthquakes that killed thousands in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the devastation that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the Southern U.S., it is obvious that we have learned very little from these and other disasters.

When calamity strikes, the response can vary in speed and quantity, but its coordination and implementation is almost always haphazard and disjointed. We begin from square one to identify, acquire, and deploy emergency assets in a rapid and effective manner. We also do a terrible job of utilizing whatever domestic capacity is still viable within the affected country. Assets lie unused or misused while the need mounts by the hour.

In responding to a disaster time is not your friend. If a person does not receive water within six days (less if they are injured) they will die. Without simple cleaning agents and antibiotics, ordinary infections can spread rapidly, resulting in amputations and deaths that could have been prevented.

So what can be done to rectify this problem? We can take some lessons from what we do on a much smaller scale in responding to emergencies in our own communities. Here, we have a 24-hour, 911 command-and-control system that is connected to the people and assets needed to respond to an emergency. If we use this model, expanded to a significantly larger scale, we could have a much more robust and effective response to emergencies like the one in Haiti.

The world needs an international 911 system with a central, disaster response, command-and-control centre. This centre could be placed under the wing of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which has been tasked to respond to these terrible events. The centre could develop a database that pre-identifies the assets needed in an emergency: heavy lift, emergency response personnel, water purification equipment, non-perishable foods, temporary shelter, field hospitals, medical teams, rescue dogs, etc. This database should compile information about the emergency response capabilities of nations and non-governmental organizations (for example the Red Cross, Doctors Without Boarders, The Salvation Army, etc.) and link them up as part of the response plan.

Some emergency assets should also be pre-deployed to three regions that are frequently affected by natural disasters: Central America, Asia Minor, and Southeast Asia. The Red Cross currently does some pre-deployment, which makes it easier for them to rapidly get life-saving materials on the ground where they are needed.

Canada and the United States could lead a multi-national effort to create this rapid response system. There is certainly a compelling, and perhaps selfish reason why we should do this. There is a 100 per cent certainty that, as the Pacific and North American plates grind against each other, a catastrophic earthquake will hit the West Coast of North America. This disaster, like others before it, and others to come, will need a massive, rapid, and coordinated response from the international community. No country can deal with these calamities alone.

When disaster strikes, a worldwide 911 system will save lives and reduce harm here and abroad. As Haiti is showing us once again, we simply cannot afford to repeatedly plod, struggle, and stumble in the face of nature’s wrath.