Training January 2014

Preparing for “the Next Big One”

Embassy plans disaster courses for Britons

• Volunteer wardens help spread information
• More demand for emergency services
• Machines simulate big earthquakes

One thing most people living in Japan have learned over the last couple of years is that disaster can strike at any time and in any place. However, people who are prepared and know the most appropriate steps to take in crisis situations are far more likely to emerge unscathed.

Since the unholy trinity of disasters—powerful earthquake, massive tsunami and nuclear crisis—occurred in March 2011, the British Embassy Tokyo has escalated its efforts to encourage British nationals to prepare for the unexpected.

That makes perfect sense, in a nation as prone to natural disasters as Japan.

The embassy already operates a system of volunteer “wardens” who are ready to assist in the event of a crisis. It advises all British residents of Japan to register for e-mail updates on the embassy’s website, to ensure they have immediate access to the latest information.

The value of the warden system was demonstrated in the aftermath of the March 2011 disasters, when embassy teams were able to pass along valuable updates to the local British community through the volunteer network.

The embassy has been arranging a series of events, at disaster education centres around Japan, to enhance British residents’ knowledge of how to respond to a threatening situation.

“Japan has had many natural disasters that are difficult to deal with, so our job is to try and prepare people by teaching them what could happen, how they can be ready and what they should do in any given situation”, said Yoshikazu Sato, a former fireman who now gives tours of the Yokohama City Municipal Disaster Prevention Center.

And while the most visually shocking disasters—earthquakes, typhoons, tsunami, large-scale floods, landslides and so on—tend to make the biggest headlines, Sato said there are plenty of everyday hazards that are just as dangerous.

A tour of the disaster prevention centre starts with a powerful video depicting some of the worst disasters in recent years, including a number of large fires in department stores and hotels that claimed a considerable number of lives.

Firemen are called out to around 1,000 blazes every year in Yokohama, a city of about 4mn people crammed into 50km2.

Official listings state most of those fires have “undetermined” causes or are classified as arson. Another major cause is cigarettes that have not been extinguished, followed by stoves and cooking fires.

As of the first week of November, 20 people had died in Yokohama fires during 2013. Sato says an ageing population and increasingly hot summers are causing a surge in demand for emergency services.

He predicted that by the end of 2013, the fire brigade and ambulances would have been summoned to around 170,000 incidents.

Visitors to the disaster centre are able to try their hand at putting out a fire with an extinguisher, as well as experiencing a smoke-filled room. Sato demonstrated how anyone caught in a smoky environment should cover their nose and mouth with a cloth, bend down and seek an exit.

Visitors are also put in a completely dark room littered with debris and obstacles that need to be overcome in order to escape.

Sato has several hints for managing such situations. Remembering not to panic is top of the list.

He also recommends wetting a finger and holding it up to determine where a breeze is coming from. This will point you in the direction of a door. Continuing to talk with other people in the room is also helpful.

While earthquakes have always been a major concern here, the danger they pose was brought home dramatically with the Great East Japan Earthquake. Similar to other disaster centres across the country, the Yokohama facility has an artificial earthquake machine for visitors.

Through simulated experiences of a number of major quakes, including the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the magnitude-9 tremor off Tohoku in 2011, visitors can gain a better understanding of the different types of ground movements that can be felt on such occasions.

“We have organised these regional events to give British nationals an opportunity to learn how to prepare themselves for a crisis, understand how the Japanese authorities will assist and find out what the embassy can do to support”, said Maria Miyazaki, vice-consul at the embassy.

“The events will also be an opportunity for us and our wardens to get to know the local British community and gain a deeper understanding about regional crisis responses”, she said.

“We hope as many people as possible can attend the events so they feel more confident and empowered to deal with ‘the next big one’”.

And while the experts may not be able to predict with any great certainty where or when the next major earthquake will strike, its arrival is inevitable.

More events
18 January: Cross Pal, Niigata
7 February: Honjo Disaster Prevention Center, Tokyo
8 March: Seibu Disaster Prevention Center; Matsudo, Chiba