Fire Chief Solomon: “No country in the world is prepared one hundred percent”

POSTED: 08/9/11 11:51 AM

Presentation to parliament about disaster management

St. Maarten – “Are we prepared? No country in the world is prepared one hundred percent. But with sound leadership anything is possible. Compared to other countries we are ahead, but disaster preparedness is an ongoing process.” With this statement, Fire Chief Winston Solomon pretty much summed up the state of affairs with regard to St. Maarten’s hurricane preparedness during a meeting of the Parliament’s central committee yesterday morning.
Solomon told the ten MPs that had made the effort to attend the meeting that he “likes to remember” 1995, the year hurricane Luis created havoc on the island.
“We had no structure in place,” he said.
But in the years after Luis St. Maarten wrote its Disaster Plan – and in 2002 it was approved by the Island Council.
Paul Martens, Head of Disaster Management and Preparedness described the plans and structures that are in place to Parliament. There are fifteen different scenarios to act upon in case of a disaster; the top ones, after hurricanes and tropical storms, concern accidents at sea and flooding.
Martens qualified a disaster as a situation that disturbs the public safety and that requires a coordinated deployment of emergency services.
“When hurricane Luis struck in 1995 it was a wake-up call for us,” Martens said.
“We learned a lesson, and since that time we have worked on improving, among other things, construction and drainage. We also designed a curfew system and a public awareness campaign.”
Eleven years ago, in 2000, the Island Ordinance Disaster management was approved. This legislation needs to be reviewed, updated and approved by Parliament, Martens said.
The Island Ordinance Disaster Plan was passed two years later; it contains the organizational structure that is now in place to deal with disasters. There are also draft disaster management plans ready for the airport and aviation, for the seaport and maritime disasters, and for flooding. Currently work on an improved oil spill plan is underway.
The Disaster Management Plan identifies ten emergency support function (ESF)-groups. Among them are GEBE, TelEm, the police, the fire department and four ministries. Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams is the supreme commander during a disaster, while Fire Chief Solomon, as the National Disaster Coordinator takes care of the operational coordination. The Prime Minister has the authority to call an emergency situation; this includes the option to install a curfew. The PM needs to inform Parliament, as well as the governments of the Kingdom, Curacao, Aruba and the Netherlands about this decision.
Answering questions from MP Jules James, Solomon said that the fire department signed a cooperation agreement with the French–side fire department; last year, the Dutch and French side emergency service worked together in launching an earthquake awareness campaign. The French side uses a color-coded alert system. Martens said that St Maarten and Curacao are working on a similar system.
“I told Curacao that, if we are going to do this, we’ll have to make sure that it matches the French system, otherwise it does not make sense.”
Reacting to a suggestion by MP Johan Leonard to make use of the experience of parliamentarians (his own as an ex-police officer and that of two MPs with a medical back ground – Lloyd Richardson and Ruth Douglas), Solomon said that he is working on a database to make an inventory of professionals living on the island. When the situation warrants it, these professionals can be called upon, he said.
The fire chief said that residents have to take initiatives of their own as well before and during a disaster.
“We give a lot of information, but sometimes people don’t listen and when something happens, everybody screams.”

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