When mock drill itself became a disaster

Chandigarh: It took several months of preparation, meetings and nearly Rs.1.2 crore. But when the big day arrived, the mock disaster drill here itself turned out to be a mockery.

Brought to public notice months in advance, government agencies, officials and other staff failed to deliver adequately when it came to the crunch. The mock drill on Feb 13 itself exposed how ill-equipped and ill-prepared these agencies were to face a disaster like a big earthquake. The mock drill was also carried out in the adjoining towns of Panchkula (Haryana) and Mohali (Punjab).

Emergency sirens failed to work at places, the response time of services like police, fire brigade and ambulance was grossly wanting and staff was found to be lax at various places in this 114 sq km union territory where the mock drill was carried out Wednesday. The planned city with a one million population is the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana and headquarters of the Chandigarh administration.

The mega drill was conducted by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to check the preparedness of emergency services in case of a major earthquake. Chandigarh falls in seismic zone IV (high probability) of earthquake-prone areas.

At the headquarters of the Chandigarh administration, the secretariat in Sector 9, there were chaos and confusion. After the siren sounded, the civil defence team took 10 minutes. The first ambulance arrived nearly 30 minutes later and the fire tenders came after 45 minutes. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) reached after one hour.

The local authorities too created confusion at various venues.

In Sector 17, Chandigarh’s main shopping and commercial hub, the parking zones were empty as they had been got vacated in advance for the mock drill. “In case of a real emergency like an earthquake or fire, this ideal situation of vehicle-free parking area will not be available for the emergency services. Today’s exercise looked like a farce,” a Chandigarh police officer on duty told.

The NDMA, clearly embarrassed by the confusion and goof-ups at various locations, tried to defend the exercise.

“It was only a mock exercise. We have learnt many things from it and will try to remove the shortcomings in future. Our aim was to make people aware of how to handle the situation and we succeeded in that,” NDMA member J.K. Sinha, a former director general of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), said after the exercise.

At Panjab University, the mock exercise became a laughing matter for the students who were ‘evacuated’ from their classrooms.

At government hospitals, patients in the emergency were inconvenienced as the staff took part in the mock exercise. At other government offices, staff took advantage of the exercise to skip work, making the public wait. At the railway station, the mock drill led to a traffic jam.

The problems were plenty — the first-aid kit was missing from some places, generators could not start, sirens malfunctioned, fire brigades did not have a ladder to reach higher floors, stretchers were missing, communication equipment like wireless sets did not function properly and even doctors did not accompany ambulances.

“If this is the preparedness and response of the emergency services, people will have to fend for themselves in case a real disaster situation arises. Bureaucrats in Chandigarh are responsible for the mess since they are hardly accountable,” Rishabh, a student at a local private college, said.


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