Saturday, 10 March 2012

I’d Rather be in a Japanese School than Anywhere Else in a Disaster

As the first anniversary of the tsunami approaches, thoughts of disaster, loss and survival are foremost in everyone’s minds. Like. Most people, my nearest tsunami evacuation point is a public elementary school. There is nowhere I would rather be, and nowhere I would rather a child in my care to be.

Elementary Schools are Self-Contained Fortresses

A Standard Japanese Elementary School Building Design

Japanese school building and grounds
The same design, different prefecture
Well, fortress might be a bit of an overstatement, but schools are built strong and are kept new. Public schools in my prefecture are torn down and rebuilt every few years, ensuring that they are always equipped with the latest earthquake and fire resistant technologies. 

The site of a demolished school. Eventually this will become part of the playground.
School rebuilding in progress. The building on the left is the "old" school, the scaffolding on the right is going to be the new.
Had an earthquake of the same magnitude hit any capital city in the world other than Tokyo, the outcome would have been very different. The technology that goes into the foundations and internal balances of buildings in this country is awe inspiring. Every elementary and junior high school has an accessible, flat roof with a guard rail or fence. Helicopters can land on these roofs, and in some places where the tsunami flooded even the upper floors of schools, staff and students were able to evacuate to the roof.  
Elementary schools are equipped with commercial sized kitchens (where hot school lunches are prepared every day). They have stores of food, crockery and usually (at least where I am) a dedicated gas supply. Newer schools generate solar electricity and schools in colder areas have wood stoves in the classrooms and plenty of fire wood stockpiled. The nurse’s office has two to three beds and a supply of futons and bedding. The cupboards are stocked with basic medications that students may need but forget to bring to school, including asthma inhalers, as well as emergency/first aid supplies and an ice machine.

Schools Use a “Cell” Organisational System

In the case of an emergency, the staff at a Japanese school could finish an attendance check in around ten seconds. I’ve seen this done during preparatory drills. This is possible due to the way schools are broken down into concentric units of decreasing size. I don’t know if disaster preparedness is the reason for the system, but I do know that it has, and will, save lives. It works like this: There is the entire student body, for which the student body president is responsible. Within the school are the different grades, who have grade leaders. Within each grade are the different classes, which usually have one male and one female class leader each (in my schools, anyway). Within the individual classes are group units of four to six students. Each of these units has a leader and a second in command. When the entire school is assembled and the teachers need to check attendance, each group leader can check at a glance if their members are present and report to the class leader, who then signals the grade leader. Each of the grade leaders flashes a signal to the student leader. In this way the attendance of a thousand students can be confirmed with no adult intervention and with lightning speed and reliable accuracy (with only four to six students in the smallest unit there is no chance of anyone being forgotten or overlooked).
Although the entire video is awesome, skip to 6:49 to see an example of this "speed attendance checking"

In some elementary schools there is an additional system that pairs the first graders with a sixth grade “buddy” who is responsible for their general welfare throughout their first year at school. When the whole school goes out for an excursion the older kids hold the younger ones’ hands when they cross the road and so on.

One of the deep tragedies of last year’s disaster is that so many schools decided to send the children home after the first earthquake. If they had stayed at school, their chances of surviving the tsunami that followed would surely have been much higher.

Edit: Read this really interesting critique of the official school response system for tsunami.
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