Women are natural ‘disaster managers’, says the lady heading the department

Women need to be trained to handle disasters, says Rashmee Lokhande. The Chief Officer in the Disaster Management Dept of the BMC, she has risen from the ranks, from a security guard to heading it now

Women are natural ‘disaster managers’, says the lady heading the department

Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

Women need to be trained to handle disasters, believes Rashmee Lokhande. Women tend to panic when there is a short circuit or a fire in the kitchen and their first impulse is to run out of the building. But women need to be aware of emergency numbers, emergency exits, fire alarm, emergency evacuation plans, emergency plans in schools attended by their children and so on. “Women are more patient than men, are quick to learn and if you train a woman, she can train the entire family,” says Lokhande.

Disaster management comes naturally to women, she quips. She should know. The Chief Officer in the Disaster Management Department of the country’s richest civic body, BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), she has risen from the ranks. From a security guard in the department to heading it, she has seen it all.

The department, she recalls, started functioning from the basement after the Latur earthquake of 1993. The control room at the time was manned by just six people, with two phones, a fax machine and a basic wireless communication set-up. It would respond to emergencies related to flooding, a recurrent issue in the city, weak, illegal and dangerous structures, grievances related to sewerage etc.

Since then the department has evolved and has responded to landslides, serial bomb blasts, building collapse, water logging and the pandemic. Today the department occupies a 4000 square feet area with Advanced Communication System (ACS) and a much larger staff strength.

During the serial bomb blasts in the city, she was in her eighth month of pregnancy and on leave when she was called back. Ambulances had to be rushed, calls had to be received, requirement of blood had to be met, relatives had to be assured and there was considerable coordination required between hospitals, doctors and blood banks. “I reached office at 5.30 pm and was on my toes till 4 am when somebody remembered and offered a glass of water and a chair,” she recalls with a chuckle.

Now armed with a postgraduate degree in Disaster Management, she remembers the Mumbai terror attack and she and her husband escaped narrowly. She was at home in Worli when she was asked to reach office late in the night. She and her husband managed to get a cab that took them to Metro Theatre at Dhobi Talao, where they were stopped by police. Terrorists were in the Cama lane, they were told and asked to turn back. They got down from the cab and decided to walk to the office. Luckily, they were picked up by an emergency vehicle. It was later that they realized that had they kept walking they would have run into the terrorists.

The pandemic, she says, posed a different challenge. The Helpline was receiving five to six thousand calls daily from people anxious for information, hospital beds, doctors, medicine, ambulances, oxygen and so on. There was panic and confusion about symptoms. BMC had to ensure that each staff knew exactly the information that needed to be shared. There was no scope for miscommunication and misinterpretation. So, a FAQ was prepared and circulated. “We tracked ambulances till they reached patients to the hospital,” she says with satisfaction.

The demands were unending and overwhelming. It was also exhausting and an emotional challenge as the department was called upon to arrange for people to dispose dead bodies.

Ignorance and half-baked information, she feels, are what come in the way of coping with disasters. A lot more, she concedes, need to be done about raising awareness of fire audits and emergency situations.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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