Overhaul emergency response system

A look at the current status of emergency management in the country will show us the disarray it is in.

DNA/Sanjay Srivastava

A woman is outraged, assaulted and she is lying in deep pain. Her friend is beaten up. The criminals set them on fire. The victims call the police and fire services, but no help comes. The police and fire service departments register the distress call but are not able to identify the caller and the location. When they find their location, the PCR van of that area is not on the communication network. What a mess! Finally, through hit and trial, they locate the victim…but to what result? The crime has been committed and the victim has lost her life.

A look at the current status of emergency management in the country will show us the disarray it is in: right from the initial hitch in which number to dial (say police 100, fire services 101, ambulance 108, mobile hospital 104, women helpline 181, disaster management 1070 and so on). Then police departments do not have comprehensive forces status and deployment details, including that of PCR vans at times.

Since the Delhi gang rape, India is flooded with varied ideas of emergency management: from tech giants to small private entrepreneurs offering web or GPS-based solutions through smart phone or other devices.

There is no coordination between the victim and the responder (say, the police) and among response agencies such as fire services, police and health department. Then comes on site rescue, recovery and rehabilitation. The country lacks live field reports for emergency management. This calls for an integrated communication and response system. Though there have been small initiatives by the central and state governments in the grievance management system and IT-based emergency communication, they lack quality, technology and effectiveness.

The Justice Verma Commission has emphasised the need of renovation in the public emergency response system (refer page 463 and 464, Appendix VI). The report envisages a common emergency response (ER) number based on a master call centre called Emergency Response Control Center (ERCC).

This is necessary as a majority of our population uses telephone. The report calls for a system that puts accountability of the emergency response on the police and other ER service providers. The system should be auditable and have a public supervision to check its effectiveness and rectify its shortcomings.

The commission envisages that the ERCC will handle all emergency situations within the geo cell (one per city) with the police, fire brigade, ambulance, etc. All calls to the ER number will mandatorily be routed to the ERCC. The telephone service provider will forward the triangulated location of the handset or the GPS coordinates of the handset in the case of any wireless telephony service. In the case of a fixed line call, the currently installed address of the phone will be forwarded. The ERCC will also coordinate responders for better and quick action.

Thus in case of an emergency call, the ERCC worker will have the location of the caller. Based on the type of emergency, the ERCC worker can dispatch the closest ER service unit for appropriate action.

The ERCC should be run as an independent service -- as a civil contracted agency -- which does not report to the police but to the civil administration of the city. It should be monitored and audited every month to ascertain its effectiveness in redirecting and dispatch of ER units. The ER units of the ER services providers should in turn maintain their own logs which can be correlated to the data of the ERCC. Besides, the ERCC audit data should be published every month.

The report further says that funding for this could come from a nominal surcharge on telephone users thus not burdening the exchequer.

Most developed countries have a good single emergency number like 911 in the US, 800 in the UK and 119 in Korea. This is required more in a diverse and vast country like us where all citizens can dial only one number in case of a need -- be it a routine law and order issue or an emergency.

The Government of India has an emergency number 100. The home ministry has a project to upgrade 100 as a common emergency number. But it is not universal due to inter-departmental conflict. There is also a requirement of implementing the Automatic Number Identification and Automatic Location Identification system by the ministry of communications.

All this is going to generate employment and huge revenue for the government at the central and state level.

Great Indian technocrats are managing the best of the Integrated Emergency Communication and Response System in countries like the US and the UK. They must be encouraged to implement the same here.

The major problem with the Indian government system is that the process is slow and senior ministers and bureaucrats need to resolve inter-departmental conflict and agree to the common ER number.

This is high time the government worked fast for the sake of safety of common man in the country.

Col (retd) Sanjay Srivastava is an international expert in disaster management and senior consultant to Optimal Solutions and Technologies (OST) Global, Washington DC

(The story was first published on February 04, 2013 in DNA newspaper)

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