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Poverty Times #3

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Sao Sebastiao practising emergency procedures

by Ruth Coutto

Communities are often unprepared when disaster strikes, and heavy losses may occur. But communities need to practise contingency plans regularly to develop the right refl exes. In an emergency there is no time to fi nd and consult instruction manuals. Experience has also shown that many people’s spontaneous reaction is misguided.

It is also important for emergency services to have practical experience of how people behave in an emergency, and how to deal with the impulsive reactions of those involved in an accident.

The city of Sao Sebastiao, in Brazil, has introduced an annual emergency practice drill for the entire community.

Sao Sebastiao is one of the nation’s biggest ports, handling approximately 50% of Brazil’s crude oil. Over the years urban development has encroached on the big Almirante Barroso terminal operated by Petrobras, the national oil company. Any uncontrolled accidents there would affect thousands of people.

In the late 1990s the mayor of Sao Sebastiao decided it was crucial to raise public awareness of potential hazards and increase overall safety. The APELL process (see article below) seemed to offer a workable model and he worked with Petrobras to have the process implemented locally1.

In 2001 a municipal decree established an “Alert Day”, with a full-scale drill being held every year on the third Saturday of October. The fi rst drill was held the same year. In 2003 nearly 900 people played an active part in the Alert Day. The drill is followed by various celebrations and social events to promote community solidarity and drum up support for such training.

The local drills raise people’s awareness of the hazards and risks to which they are exposed and show them how to react to potential accidents. They involve schools and students, using teachers who have received training in evacuation procedures and who can discuss the various aspects of disasters. The day before the drill a series of disaster-mitigation events are organised. Community-based programmes make allowance for local culture.

The city of Sao Sebastiao intends to continue this exercise in the future, convinced that a fully aware, well informed and properly trained population is the best guarantee of safety and a successful response to emergencies.

Ruth Coutto is a consultant in industrial risk assessment currently working for UNESCO.

1. More information on the Sao Sebastiao case study including audiovisuals and written explanations can be found at