Thursday, 20 December 2012

Disaster Training, Two Years On

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I joined the students in the icy cold gym the other day to watch a disaster training video. I thought it would be the same old same old, but it was completely different to everything I had heard before (and actually contradicted previous advice). I think it may have been modelled on one of the schools Ryo wrote about. The video said it was Iwate prefecture but used a fictional name ("East Junior High" and "East Elementary").
The video shows a teacher instructing junior high students to protect their own lives first and run, not to check on the safety of their family and friends. The students object, saying that it’s horrible.
The teacher responds by asking them if a fire alarm went off at school and no one else evacuated, what would they do? The students reply that they would assume it was a false alarm and stay put. So, the teacher asks, what if everyone else was running? We’d think it was real and evacuated, the children reply. Exactly, he says. While everyone is milling around checking on each other and wondering what to do, valuable escape time is being wasted. By setting an example and running you are actually protecting those around you. At that point the video went into some really interesting looking research about how many people the average Japanese person needs to see evacuating before they take a threat seriously, but it started pouring with rain and I had to run out of the gym to move Rothbart under cover, so I missed the details.
In the next scene we cut to the March 11. The students are engaged in their club activities when the earthquake strikes. They immediately seize the initiative, running for the hills while shouting “tsunami, run”. The video shows that the school PA system has failed; if the students had waited for instructions from their teachers they may not have made it. The students run past a nearby elementary school, where the teachers are depicted as indecisive and dithering. The elementary kids see the JHS kids running and stream out of the school to join them. Local people see the running kids through their windows and join the evacuation despite no official order having been issued. Because the JHS kids ran immediately without hesitation or relying on others, the story concludes, they saved countless other lives.
It’s been almost two years since the great quake. This is the first time I have heard official advice to evacuate immediately and not stop to check up on others. Even in the weeks immediately following the disaster, when everyone was reviewing their emergency contingency plans and it was clear that the existing plans had massively failed, we were still encouraged to wait for broadcasts, gather at designated points, check on our neighbours and family members and travel together in groups. Students and teachers were told to assemble at school, but not where we should go for safety in the event of a tsunami that would render our elevation unsafe. This time, teachers detailed the route we will take to a nearby mountain, and we will do a practice evacuation leaving the school grounds for the first time ever in January.
Two years later, but better than never.
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