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Chile: Disaster Readiness Done Right

As the world struggles to cope with natural disasters, how can countries improve their response when a crisis strikes? If governments want a strong national preparedness plan and are willing to back it with funding, one will see improvements on the ground. However, this will never be solved with a one-off training. It is continual process of reflection, analysis, and promoting changes systemically.

Aid implementers and governments can look to Chile’s investments in preparedness to build their own home-grown systems that are good for the long-term. Chile took creating change seriously. They made it a priority within their government. And they are now leaders in South America on how best to embrace the necessary structure that promotes preparedness from a ministerial level to a single individual.

While Chileans are highly accustomed to seismic activity, given the country’s geological positioning within the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” the earthquake on February 27, 2010 was a seminal moment in the lives and memories of many citizens. A pre-dawn 8.8-magnitude earthquake occurred off the central coastline and triggered a tsunami that devastated several coastal towns in south-central Chile. Together, the earthquake and tsunami were responsible for more than 500 deaths and economic losses estimated at $15-30 billion.

The devastating impacts of this event forced a paradigm shift in local perceptions with resulting changes that offer valuable lessons for other countries and for international aid. Prior to the earthquake, many Chileans viewed “emergency management” as a public policy problem, falling under the purview of government authorities, specifically the National Emergency Office of the Ministry of Interior and Public Security (in Spanish, ONEMI).

After the quake, public discourse started to reimagine emergency management as a challenge requiring more active public engagement, working across all different sectors of Chilean life—public, private, and nongovernmental. Emergencies were not merely a threat to personal security in isolated geographic pockets, but to the environment, infrastructure, economy, and everyone’s way of life.

ONEMI began engaging with disparate sectors and disseminating tools to a cross-section of different societal actors, helping them weave risk mitigation and preparedness concepts into their worldviews and workflows. A comprehensive diagnostic assessment of the disaster management capabilities of these various actors revealed a broad-based need for increased capacity in preparedness, particularly at the level of municipalities and other local jurisdictions, which represent the frontline of any response effort.

Chile’s analysis and resulting deliberations were guided by international assistance, cooperation, and collaboration, particularly the Hyogo Framework for Action, a 10-year plan to build the resilience of nations and communities to disasters, which was subsequently ratified in the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction.

ONEMI reached a strategic decision to bolster civil protection capabilities in disaster risk reduction and response preparedness, while deepening the use of incident command systems—an organizational framework that promotes coordination across multiple responders—and expanding the usage of early warning systems among local, regional, and national counterparts across the country.

ONEMI’s own National Academy of Civil Protection developed and rolled out a national training plan for disaster risk reduction, which established the fundamentals, guidelines, and strategies to plan, design, and implement training and education programs in Chile.

The Academy’s approaches included concrete tools, risk management courseware, and simulation exercises as well as broader institutional planning frameworks. ONEMI’s strategic vision emphasizes several specific focus areas: 1) strengthening first response capability (including the roles and responsibilities of health workers, firefighters, and forest fire brigades); 2) methods of instruction (adult learning, course design, course delivery, facilitation, etc.); and 3) school safety (ensuring that students, teachers, and administrators have the tools necessary for resilience in the face of an emergency).

Integral to this approach was ONEMI’s emphasis on elevating already existing or newly emergent organizations to become allies in building up local capacity, such as universities and training centers. These and other organizations reinforced their own ambitious programs of professional certification in the area of risk management, quite often through the lens of existing specializations such as the health sector, urban planning, and environmental protection.

Moreover, ONEMI has played a leading role within a regional “community of practice” designed to promote the theme of disaster risk reduction among institutions of higher learning, connecting Chilean learning centers with prominent regional counterparts such as the National University of San Marcos in Lima and Florida International University in Miami.

What are the implications for the international community? While adherence to international professional standards provides a useful framework for national and local actors in Chile and elsewhere, the drive towards professionalization is also inspired in part by the sense that elevated capabilities could curb the degree to which countries depend on foreign assistance in the event of future disasters. Chile is now far more capable to respond to its own emergencies requiring assistance only during major catastrophic events.

Establishing systems of accredited training—particularly in the form of low-cost, locally provided solutions—is a worthwhile investment in self-sufficiency. Aid implementers can engage with local and regional learning centers (such as universities, institutes, and trade schools) to reform the ways in which they deliver their educational products, offering more distance learning and a wider array of curricula targeting undergraduate, graduate, and mid-career professional programs. Concentrating on professionalism would make the provision of humanitarian aid more evidence-based, leading to more appropriate aid and more knowledge about the true impact that aid has on at-risk populations.

As Dexis has learned across countless development efforts assisting governments and donors alike, the focus must always return to the country itself. And countries taking leadership means looking for a national-to-local level participation and strategy. This approach is a holistic process that requires buy-in, participation, and, of course, funding. It takes an entire nation to embrace their own disaster preparedness and not wait for handouts.

Karen Walsh is Director of Stabilization at Dexis, where she provides programmatic leadership in security, stabilization, and humanitarian assistance.