Linked to the issue of the government deciding against seeking international assistance, was the lack of proper equipment available to the rescue services, and their inability to use what was available.
New Age: Donor-provided search, rescue cameras barely used (1 May 2013)
Specialised search and rescue cameras provided by the UNDP to the country’s fire service department three years ago were barely used by its officers involved inDaily Telegraph: Bangladesh discarded UK-funded search cameras in rescue mission (30 Apr 2013)
the rescue of those trapped under the collapsed Rana Plaza building, New Age has learnt.
In 2010, as part of the UNDP-managed Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme, 16 thermal cameras and 20 search cameras were given to the fire service department at a total cost of Tk 22,711,026 or $291,000.
Major Mohammad Zihadul Islam, the director of training, planning and development at the fire service department told New Age that the nature of the ‘pancake’ collapse of Rana Plaza made it very difficult to use the search camera which was attached onto a telescopic stick that could be put through small gaps.
‘The spaces that my search and rescue team found [inside the collapsed building] were very narrow and [they] could only pass through by crawling. Rescuers in those spaces faced a little difficulty in using search vision cameras,’ he said.
He said that the camera was too bulky for efficient use since the rescuers were already carrying torches and oxygen canisters. He also complained that there was no sufficient light.
‘We could not take all accessories for the camera, but where possible we used it,’ he said.
Zihad also said that the thermal cameras, which could detect human life by the distinct heat coming from the bodies, were not useful.
‘In this particular place [we] did not have enough scope to use this camera,’ he said. He also said that the camera had malfunctioned when used inside the wreckage.
‘We had malfunctioning of this camera, though certainly the whole machine did not collapse. When we took the camera outside we found it effective, but inside the building in some places, we could use it, but not in others,’ he added.
The UN humanitarian affairs adviser in Dhaka, Gershon Brandao, however, questioned the reasons given by the fire brigade for the lack of use of the equipment.
Acknowledging that he did not know exactly what cameras the fire brigade had been given, he said, ‘If you do have search cameras, their size should not be an issue. This is exactly the equipment that is required [for search and rescue].’
‘It can go into any small hole. The size of the camera is not the reason,’ he claimed.
The humanitarian adviser blamed the lack of skills of fire brigade officers in using the equipment.
‘I think [the fire brigade] have given a wrong assessment. Lack of skills on how to use this equipment is likely to be a factor,’ he said.
Dr ASM Maksud Kamal, the professor and chair of the department of disaster science and management at Dhaka University, who had worked on the UN project as the urban risk reduction specialist at the time the equipment was procured, told New Age, ‘We did not give them any training on this equipment, nor did we receive any request from them for training.’
According to Dr Puji Pujion, the project manager of the current programme, 13 senior fire service officers have received search and rescue training outside the country and have come back as ‘master trainers’.
He said that as a result of the training that these senior officers had subsequently given to their junior colleagues, he thought that ‘35 to 40 senior officers had working knowledge of the use of the equipment.’
He, however, acknowledged that these people were not likely to be the ones involved in the hands on rescue attempt.
The fire service’s director of training, planning and development admitted to New Age that his officers ‘just have working knowledge of the machines.’
‘We have had no organised training on the particular equipment… Maybe we will go for specialised training,’ he said.
He, however, denied that any lack of training was the reason why the equipment was found not to be useful.
‘If we had taken specialist training earlier it would have been better, but for this particular disaster, the area by default was restricting the use of the camera. For this particular incident any lack of previous training on this equipment did not hamper the operation,’ he said.
The UN humanitarian adviser refused to be drawn into whether lives could have been saved had the specialist equipment been used, but said, ‘The more sophisticated the equipment, the increased likelihood of saving lives. But reality can be different.’
The UNDP managed Comprehensive Disaster Management in two phases has been funded by a combination of foreign donors. The $27 million first phase which ended in 2009 was funded by the United Kingdom, European Community and UNDP itself, while the $ 76 million second phase is funded by six international donors – with UK being the biggest contributer – as well as the government of Bangladesh.
Other equipment provided by the project has been used by the fire service in the search and rescue efforts. In addition 200 volunteers trained by the UN programme have been involved in rescue efforts.
Bangladesh discarded UK-backed state-of-the-art search equipment which could have saved people trapped in the Dhaka building collapse, the Telegraph has learned.
Thermal imaging and telescopic search cameras designed to find people trapped in collapsed buildings were given to Bangladesh in a UN aid package for disaster management partly funded with £18 million pounds from Britain's Department for International Development.
The disclosure raises fresh questions over the handling of the biggest industrial disaster in the country's history and whether more lives could have been saved. According to the police 384 bodies have been recovered from the rubble of Dhaka's Rana Plaza building but up to 900 are still missing, presumed dead in the wreckage.
Bangladesh has faced strong criticism for rejecting emergency assistance from the UN and Britain but yesterday [TUES] said its handling of the crisis had been "exemplary."
Home Secretary Mustak Ahmed said his government was grateful to Britain for its offer, but felt it could manage alone. "The need for immediate foreign assistance was not felt because our rescue operation has been sufficient and exemplary. Our army, firefighters, police and volunteers did a very good job. We also have enough equipment," he said.
But sophisticated thermal and search cameras given under a UN disaster management programme were discarded by commanders at Rana Plaza who said they were not appropriate for the conditions at the site.
Bangladesh received 20 search cameras, valued at £110,000 and 16 thermal image cameras, worth £77,000, in 2010 by the UN's Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme, but while senior officers received some general training in their use, UN advisors said they believe those on the ground searching for survivors had not.
Major Zihad, the fire service's training director said his rescuers could not use the equipment because the gaps between concrete pillars were too narrow and the cavities too dark. The tangle of concrete prevented his men using the thermal cameras to find survivors. In any case his men already had their hands full with torches and oxygen bottles and could not carry them.
"The situation did not permit. We have used the search vision camera in some places but because the collapse was pancake type, ten stories came to 3 stories, there were very narrow spaces and [my men] could only pass through with crawling. Those spaces faced a little difficulty using search vision camera. The cameras should be more handy. My rescuers went zig zag. The could barely carry oxygen and search light," he said.
The thermal camera had not worked properly inside the rubble, but functioned correctly outside, he added.
But according to Gerson Brandao, the UN's Humanitarian Affairs advisor in Bangladesh, the equipment was right for a building collapse and could have saved lives had it been used correctly.
"If equipment has been procured, there should be trained people to use the equipment. If the equipment has been donated and if they have not used the equipment they need to be explain why it is not used. I think they have given a wrong assessment. Lack of skills on how to use this equipment is likely to be a factor. The more sophisticated the equipment, the increased likelihood of saving lives. But reality can be different," he said.
Dr Puji Pujiono, the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme's project manager, suggested that 30 to 40 senior officers trained in using the equipment had not passed on their knowledge to the rescuers on the ground at Rana Plaza, where conditions were not under control and members of the public were able to wander around the rescue site.
"The one who goes in inside typically is not a commanding officer. Those that do are untrained. There were no senior people going into the holes. This is Bangladesh," he said.