Neighbors as Your Safety Net: Community Empowerment toward Emergency Readiness

Neighbors as Your Safety Net: Community Empowerment toward Emergency Readiness

Neighbors can be problematic (click here for a recent post about such neighbors), but they can also save your life, especially in an emergency. In the Emergency Response Networks program in east Jerusalem, we are helping bottom-up grassroots initiatives of residents to build the skills and capacity for emergency preparedness.

Imagine an earthquake. Especially in an area such as east Jerusalem, where infrastructure is poor – roads are narrow and poorly kept on good days, many buildings and additions did not take into consideration building codes and safety standards.

There is no time. Buildings have crumbled. Pipes and gas lines might have burst, power lines might be down. People might be trapped, and time is not on your side. All around the world, experts say that for the first few days – the community cannot hope for rescue teams to come from somewhere else. The formal rescue teams are going to be busy, very busy.

The best solution for these first few days is a team of local volunteers, who are responsible for the Emergency Response Network of the neighborhood. This team is trained in advance. As a part of their preparation, they create a detailed plan to have in place. All relevant infrastructure and equipment in the neighborhood will have been mapped – the schools and other public buildings, the health clinics, ambulances and other medical equipment, bulldozers, trucks and other heavy machinery, everything possible in the neighborhood that might help in an emergency. All relevant professionals in the neighborhood will also have been mapped and coordinated – from nurses and doctors to social workers to construction workers and engineers. They will have been organized into clusters by a number of resident-cluster heads. The Israeli police and other rescue workers will also have been notified, so that they know who from the neighborhood is in charge and so that rescue efforts can be streamlined.

We’ve been working to develop such Emergency Response Networks for the past 3 years, and currently there are trained teams in the neighborhoods of Jabel El-Mukaber and Silwan, Abu-Tor and Sur Baher, covering tens of thousands of east Jerusalem residents (out of 300,000 residents in East Jerusalem). Today they undergo practice simulation exercises like those described above. An earthquake is just one example of such an emergency to be prepared for. The concept of local team based on residents is novel. Usually in Israel these “local teams” are based on professionals who work in the community. But many of them reside outside the community, and it might be that in an emergency such as an earthquake, they will find it hard to come. The intensive mapping of resources is also unique to East Jerusalem – in neighborhoods that were originally villages of a few large families, where most people knew each other anyway, mapping and recruitment of community members that have expertise and tools (As bulldozers) is easier.

But we were frustrated…. The current training model enabled us to cover just 10% of East Jerusalem over 3 years. So now, based on what we’ve learnt so far, we are improving our pace. Utilizing a ‘Train the Trainers’ methodology, we are on the brink of training teams in all east Jerusalem neighborhoods over the next 2 years. Starting next week, on May 20, we are supervising the training of 12 Emergency Response Network trainers. These leaders had been trained before to be in their own local emergency team; now we are training them to train others. When these trainers complete the 40 hour course by the middle of July, they will then be able to organize and train volunteers in each of the neighborhoods, and survey the physical and human infrastructure in the neighborhoods. That work will take time (albeit, much less than in our previous model), but the results will be well worth the wait.

What is fascinating about this project is that neighborhoods do not only learn to save lives and save their neighborhoods in the case of an emergency. They also get to know one another and pool local resources. They are been empowered to help their community, whether they are doctors, social workers, teachers or construction workers. They are their own safety net. In the week of flood this winter (that ended with a full-blown snowstorm), these teams helped a lot in solving local problems of closed roads etc., whenever the citywide limited resources could not get in. This week showed the importance of these networks, even without major emergency situation.

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