From Crisis to Risk Management in Disasters

Recep Şalcı
Chairman of the Board of Directors, AKUT Search and Rescue Association

Established in 1996, known for its activities during the 1999 Marmara Earthquake, and active for over a quarter century, the AKUT Search and Rescue Association’s search, rescue, and humanitarian aid activities can be analyzed under four main topics: “Mediterranean Fires,” “The Black Sea Flood Disasters,” “EU ModEx Search and Rescue Drill” hosted by AKUT, and “Istanbul Earthquake Response and National Evacuation Plan Preperations” in coordination with the Ministry of Interior.

It is a well-known fact that June to September is the flood season for the Black Sea Region, which is a great opportunity for preparing for flood disasters in the region. Homes and workplaces should be built away from dangerous places like river beds to mitigate damages caused by floods and overflows. The biggest reason why floods occur is the overflow of river beds. In the aftermath of the flood disaster in August, we all have learned what it means to build a district on a riverbed. Therefore, unusual weather events started increasing due to the impacts of climate change. Flood disasters in the Black Sea Region are the first example that comes to mind.

Search and rescue operations in floods are conducted to a limited degree, or even not at all. Everything happens too quickly. What we do would not be beyond search and evacuation activities if the necessary measures were not taken –in other words, if there is no “risk planning.” For this very reason, the following matters are crucial: “disaster culture,” “disaster resilient settlements,” “the awareness of meteorological changes” especially in risky geographies and seasons, and “evacuation on time.”

The lack of disaster culture also manifested in people’s behavior during the Black Sea flood disasters. The fact that some of the families we tried to rescue left their homes after emptying their refrigerators showed that we still did not have enough awareness of the emergency kit and what it should contain. It also revealed that the accreditation process of search and rescue teams should be maintained in flood and fire disasters. The most significant issue in this regard is that all institutions, especially related governmental units should direct their efforts away from crisis management and towards risk management which consists of mitigation, preparedness, forecasting, and early warning.

Not only floods but also forest fires increased in number in 2021 due to climate change. However, search and rescue operations are least needed in fire disasters since the end goal is to put out the fire as soon as possible. We, as AKUT, actively operate in the field within the scope of evacuation and forest fire extinguishing activities as we are familiar with nature and can respond quickly. We are proud to say that we rescued 225 people and hundreds of people in the last Mediterranean fires with the coordinated efforts of our 12 teams and 121 volunteers.

We rescued more than 500 people in the Aegean and Mediterranean fires and the Black Sea flood disasters and contributed to the rescue of more than a thousand people in joint operations. We receive feedbacks on how beneficial our posts are, which we share on our social media accounts and on to raise awareness and provide information. With search and rescue teams, such as the Governorship of Istanbul, the Provincial Gendarmerie Command, AFAD, and AKUT, and in coordination with the Ministry of Interior, the Istanbul Earthquake Response Plan and National Evacuation Plan were drafted. All related institutions took an active part in the preparation processes of the plans. It is impossible to prevent mass panic during an earthquake if a country does not have a solid action and evacuation plan. This process can be managed properly only if Istanbul’s residents learn how to behave in different phases following an earthquake and be sure that all related institutions of the state will be there for them. If people act on panic and behave unconsciously, the result might be all kinds of unfavorable situations, especially traffic jams. That was precisely the case for the Izmir earthquake.

We were in a training in Bodrum with our volunteers when the Izmir earthquake occurred. Though we arrived in Izmir in 2 hours, it took 2.5 hours to get to the disaster field due to traffic jams. In the first hours of the earthquake, many people left their homes in panic even if there was no damage and they tied up traffic. The first hours of a disaster, also called the “Golden Hour,” are crucial not only for search and rescue operations but also for ambulances and firefighting vehicles to arrive on the field. The situation would be so much more tragic for the potential Istanbul earthquake.

AKUT holds the record to be the first Turkish search and rescue team to join “INSARAG” affiliated with the United Nations and “ECPP-European Civil Protection Pool” within the scope of the “European Civil Protection Mechanism,” and it also became one of the partners of a consortium performing provincial search and rescue drills and medical rescue drills. As AKUT, we achieved another international success this year. In cooperation with AFAD, we hosted the biggest drill within the scope of ModEx and European Union states search and rescue teams and medical rescue teams took part in the drill. We participated in the drill performed between 11 and 14 November 2021 in Tekirdağ with our 100 volunteers and 13 teams (Bursa, Denizli, Manisa, Kuşadası, İzmir, Marmaris, Yarımada, Ankara, Afyon, Istanbul, Eskişehir, Kocaeli, Tekirdağ). With the help of our experienced volunteers, we played a role in both field management and drill management.

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