Drones‚ a 24-hour call centre and an early warning system are some of the technologies that the people of Gauteng should expect in a new provincial disaster management centre.
Several disasters over the past few years have raised questions about the province’s ability to respond to calamity.
In 2016 a tornado hit the City of Ekurhuleni‚ leaving a trail of damage. And in December last year the City of Johannesburg was hit by heavy rainfall that caused destruction in several areas‚ including Lenasia‚ Tshepisong‚ Thembelihle‚ Alexandra‚ Protea Glen Extensions‚ Roodepoort‚ Kagiso and Braamfischerville.
Elias Sithole‚ who heads the Gauteng Provincial Disaster Management Centre (PDMC)‚ explained the importance of his institution.
The Disaster Management Act of 2002 compels Gauteng and other provincial governments to have disaster management centres.
Currently there is no physical disaster management centre in the province but one is being established in Midrand. Staff working in the disaster management department‚ which is housed in the Gauteng department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta)‚ use offices in the Johannesburg city centre. Most people at the centre are disaster management practitioners. At this stage there are no specialists within the unit but a few qualified managers and directors.
“We will get specialists when we move to the new centre. We want to have our own proper structure. Right now we don’t have a proper structure. On March 14‚ we will be taking the proposal [structure] to the executive council and once they approve‚ then we will have a proper structure which we can capacitate‚” Sithole said.
He wants the new facility to have a 24-hour call centre and systems that can track hazards and risks‚ and send early warnings to communities. The plan is to link the centre’s system with the SA Weather Service. Sithole said the plan is to have information that is more geographically specific and to give a timeline when it can be predicted.
“We are also exploring the use of drones. We want a situation where we can fly the drones on top of the disaster area before and after the disaster has struck. Before the disaster‚ the drones will give us the immediate profile of the area to be affected by the disaster. After the disaster‚ the drones will be able to give hard facts of the extent of damage‚” Sithole said. “What we want is to have a disaster management centre with all the technology that is required so that we are able to send early warnings to the public. We want to have a call centre situated at the disaster management centre taking calls from the community‚” he added.
The PDMC is also responsible for monitoring how municipalities respond to disasters. When there is no disaster‚ the centre would conduct disaster management assessments in communities. All the high-risk areas would be visited to identify risks.
“If you go to Alexandra along the Jukskei River‚ as much as there are no floods there‚ we need to do an assessment to check if the community is moving closer to the river banks or not. When it rains‚ we can actually know which communities are at risk‚” Sithole explained.
When an assessment has been made by the provincial PDMC‚ the report is taken to the head of the municipal disaster management centre in the municipality. The head of the municipal centre takes the report to council‚ which decides on action.
“We always encourage that the municipalities must lead the process [in dealing with disaster] because they are the ones who are closer to the community. If the municipality lacks capacity‚ we step in as province to help.”
Another area of disaster that Sithole wants to address is the transportation of dangerous goods by truck.
“We want a situation where we will know the trucks carrying dangerous chemicals‚ where they are going and which route they are using. This will enable us to study the wind and be aware if there were to be an accident involving this truck‚ which communities would be affected due to the direction of the wind‚” he said.
Data relating to such a truck would be sourced through industry bodies‚ the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral) and the process will also involve the police.
Sithole also wants the centre to facilitate training and awareness to communities on disaster management. He also wants the centre to have specialists in hydrology‚ terrorism and aviation‚ without directly interfering with the agencies of the state dealing with these.
The current number of people working at the PDMC is 31 people.
The new centre will also have an urban search and rescue team‚ which specialises in rescuing people in collapsed buildings. There is already a team of these in the province‚ which is the third on the continent. It was assessed by the United Nations in 2017‚ and it passed. It is made up of 120 people. This team has been made available to help other provinces in the country.
In disaster management‚ municipalities are supposed to be the first to respond. If they cannot cope‚ then they bring in provincial government. A list must be compiled by the municipalities‚ with the help of provincial government‚ detailing all affected infrastructure. The list should include cost implications as well as addresses and the ID numbers of the people affected by the disaster.
The mayor has to go to council to declare a local state of disaster. Then that request is sent to provincial government‚ which takes it to national government. The National Disaster Management Centre (in national Cogta) will then send a team to visit the disaster site to verify the report received.
The team also looks at the municipal boundaries affected by the disaster and then confirms the local state of disaster. The municipality must then gazette the local state of disaster. A business plan will be then developed by the municipality and submitted to provincial government‚ which is sent to the national government in order to access disaster grants.
Funds from the national government are then allocated to the sector department that deals with the specific infrastructure damage. The human settlements department in Gauteng would receive the grant to fix houses. If a school was also damaged‚ the money goes to the department of education in the province.
A building has been bought in Midrand to accommodate the centre. A contractor has already been appointed by the provincial department of infrastructure development to renovate and do petitioning. The date for the opening of the new centre is yet to be set.
Sithole holds a master’s degree in disaster management and a PhD in public management.