Winds of Change in the Modernization and Development of Civil Protection in Chile

The National Emergency Office (ONEMI) —which belongs to the Chilean Ministry of the Interior— is undoubtedly the most thorough and farreaching process to modernize and strengthen national disaster prevention and management since the office was created over 35 years ago.

Foto: Vitor San Martin /Wikipedia Commons

Foto: © Vitor San Martin /Wikipedia Commons

Government support for this process has been fundamental, giving a strong boost to the modernization and development of civil protection in Chile. With a clear prevention component, concrete steps are being taken to enable the country to progressively shift towards effective risk management.

This phase in ONEMI’s institutional advancement has been possible thanks to a proposal that the Office started developing in mid-2006. The proposal was submitted to authorities of the Ministry of the Interior in June 2007, who approved and forwarded it to the Ministry of the Treasury. As a result, ONEMI received a new budget that was increased by 118% in 2008, and an additional 54.77% in 2009.

As part of the geographic decentralization process, since 2008, ONEMI has had regional branch offices throughout the country, with trained human resources, long-range vehicles, and a growing telecommunications and facilities network. This is a significant achievement for such a large country, which is divided into 15 administrative regions from north to south. This progress has strengthened the institution’s organizational structure by effectively extending its lines of action to directly cover the entire country, keeping in mind that years earlier ONEMI performed this function from the central level.

An important aspect tied to these changes has been the development of technical skills for risk assessment and early warning, through the aforementioned increase in specialized human resources in ONEMI, not only at the central level, but regionally.

In this short period of time, clear, concrete progress has been made in modernizing the institution. In this regard, ONEMI’s national director, Carmen Fernández, stressed that the changes being made are strengthening the work of civil protection around the country, with a focus that is primary and effectively preventive.

Ms. Fernández stated that “modernizing this service also involves upgrading the national early warning system around the country, as part of the continuous improvement of risk management. However, this only has meaning through its links to a systemwide, continuous process of community involvement, focusing on the sectors most vulnerable to emergencies, disasters and catastrophes, which is definitely the core motivation behind the process we began a couple of years ago.”

Primary strategic lines

If we assume that the role of ONEMI – in real terms – is to manage uncertainty in dealing with the behavior of nature, this technical service in charge of civil protection in Chile focuses its work on actions that effectively enable providing people with certainty. Along these lines, the modernization process has been dealing with strengthening critical areas in risk management. This has included restructuring the national Early Warning Center (CAT), which has the mission of continuously and systematically monitoring different risk scenarios, to gather, assess and disseminate information on potential or real emergencies or disasters, through a system that operates continuously— 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (24/7/365).

Another major effort has been put into the implementation of the Territorial Deployment Units (UDT), to provide technical support and guidance to the Regional Offices of ONEMI on comprehensive risk management. On the logistics side, four regional warehouses containing emergency supplies have been installed around the country, for the purpose of decentralizing relief and response activities, and providing prompt, effective services to the affected population.

Another particularly important development is the implementation of the Program for Community-Based Participation in Local Safety Management in Response to Natural and Anthropogenic Risk, in 31 communities prioritized according to their vulnerability index, which is the ratio between loss or damage and poverty. This educational program also includes Chile’s indigenous peoples (Aymara and Mapuche) to build greater knowledge of prevention in these communities, especially regarding the particular risks they face, while respecting their cultural heritage. This year, the program has also put particular emphasis on two new vulnerable population groups: the elderly and preschoolers. ONEMI has signed a joint working agreement with the National Board of Kindergartens (JUNJI) and the INTEGRA Foundation, in charge of early childhood education, for working with the second of these new sectors.

The upcoming bicentennial

The upcoming 200th anniversary of the founding of the Chilean Republic (2010) converges symbolically with the express concern of Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, to institutionalize civil protection as a priority measure in the national development process. In this context, the Bicentennial initiatives that support this progressive, committed and advanced perspective can be seen in many areas, ranging from integrated, participatory multisectoral prevention management to the process for developing a national seismological and volcano monitoring network.

ONEMI is coordinating earthquake and volcano monitoring

In late January 2009, president Bachelet signed a decree establishing the Continuous Coordination System for Earthquake and Volcano Monitoring, an innovative initiative for the development and modernization of monitoring processes to improve prevention.

This initiative —one of the president’s bicentennial projects, to be coordinated by the National Emergency Office (ONEMI)— will make it possible for this system to have an annual operating budget funded through the Public Sector Budgeting Law. A Technical and Scientific Support Committee will also be created for ONEMI, made up of a number of specialized agencies and institutions from the academic and scientific communities that will provide guidance to the system. This System is comprised of the National Seismic Prevention Program and the National Volcano Monitoring Network Program.

Several actions are planned as part of the full implementation of the National Seismic Prevention Program. One of these will be the creation of Chile’s first Seismic Hazard Map, using leading-edge technology, new methods and data on Chile’s seismic and tectonic history. This map will provide the country with basic information, which will be available for conducting specific studies on seismic hazards and risks. Another of the main actions will be the implementation of an Outreach and Education Program on Earthquake Prevention and Disasters of Natural Origin targeted to engineers and other experts at decision-making levels in public policy implementation.

Furthermore, the National Volcano Monitoring Network Program will include all activities for developing better scientific knowledge and conducting instrumental monitoring of Chile’s active volcanoes, as tools for mitigating the potential impact of volcanic eruptions. The program also has the goal of developing a coherent system of interrelated information activities and services aimed at facilitating decision-making and assisting in emergency management.

In referring to this initiative, President Bachelet said that “we have been favored with a land that is generous, rich and fertile, but at the same time capable of darkening the horizon with the uncontrollable forces of nature. This means that the country has had to coexist with the fury of the elements—as some would put it—and has had to learn how to get back on its feet after a disaster.”

Along these lines, President Bachelet summed up that “in the face of unpredictable misfortune, we have to organize ourselves better, develop scientific and technological knowledge, specify the responsibilities of our government, take advantage of international experience regarding this issue and, above all, reinforce something that is always a key element to any situation: a culture of solidarity for always facing emergencies together.”

For more information:
Alfredo Lagos
Coordination and Dissemination Deptartment