By PIYAPORN WONGRUANG
THE NATION WEEKEND
THE DRAMATIC Tham Luang cave rescue, a local incident with global-level complexity, has exposed weaknesses in Thailand’s disaster risk management systems that put it to test since the 2004 tsunami, and prompted agencies to examine their response to “unprecedented” tragedies.
Thailand had faced a major tragedy in 2004 when the country was hit by the world’s deadliest tsunami, causing the loss of thousands of lives.
Flight Lieutenant Atchariya Pangma, secretary-general of the National Institute for Emergency Medicine (NIEM), explained that when the tsunami hit, Thailand had no disaster risk management systems in place, the situation that he called “a mess”.
After the incident, Thailand introduced two laws concerning disaster prevention and mitigation, and emergency medical services (EMS). They resulted in two critical directives in dealing with disasters – search and rescue, and the EMS. New mechanisms and scope of authority were also developed and put in place to support the work.
Under the 2007 Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Law, disasters are defined as both man-made, including terrorism, and natural. If they are security- related disasters, responsibility will be shouldered primarily by the Army. If they are natural disasters, the responsibility would fall under the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department and the committees appointed under the law.
For the first time, the law introduced command structures that followed the model developed by the United States after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, known as the incident command system, Atchariya pointed out.
In Thailand, the command structures are divided into four administrative levels – local, provincial, regional and national – to respond to disasters that are categorised as small, medium, large, and extremely large.
Atchariya said that the Tham Luang cave incident was supposed to be managed under the local command, but as thousands joined the rescue effort in the first few days following news spread on social media, it caused chaos. Eventually, the operation was put under the authority of the then-governor, Narongsak Osattanakorn, who implemented systematic management control under the disaster law.
“It’s not an ad-hoc thing to see the governor taking control of the situation and being appointed as commander of the situation, but it followed the national disaster management plan. That’s why we saw the command system [put in place], with supporting teams working in line with the command. The media interviews were also part of the management,” said Atchariya.
Atchariya said the emergency response was undertaken in two parts: search and rescue by teams including the Navy SEALs working inside and around the cave; and the EMS, with medical teams waiting outside, acknowledged as the safe zone.
He said Lt- Colonel Dr Pak Loharnshoon was actually part of the EMS, but he was “a forwarding factor” that could also approach risk zones because of his expertise.
Atchariya said the Tham Luang incident demonstrated how well the EMS was ready with systematic medical preparations, including setting-up an area for field medics, where the search-and-rescue and EMS members would come together, medical rehearsals, as well as a short period of time for medical treatment,.
However, the limits of the search-and-rescue operation were exposed over time, as the complexity of the cave and natural environment became apparent.
Under the disaster prevention law, search-and-rescue personnel are supposed to be operational at every local level, but at present such local mechanisms are still missing.
Meanwhile, rescue personnel of agencies such as the National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department, though trained, need to improve more of their skills. Forest parks, including ThamluangKhunnam Nangnon Forest Park where the Tham Luang cave is located, still lack appropriate personnel due to budget issues. This point was also admitted by some park officials.
Atchariya said that although some new equipment would be required following the incident, it does not mean Thailand must necessarily have sophisticated rescuers. Instead, Thailand should focus on developing a crisis resource management system, under which a pool of professional information can be available.
More critically, prevention measures and rescue preparation measures should be boosted, Atchariya said. The sign in front of the Tham Luang cave warning of possible hazards, for instance, did not prevent the children from entering the cave. He said there should be more public education about the risks in everyday life.
“I must say that this is a national problem – of having low awareness about risks to our lives. We should seriously address and tackle this area, first and foremost, as prevention is actually the best approach against disasters,” said Atchariya.
Rescue and cave experts, such as Prachan Meeboon, the department’s Rescue Division chief, and Chaiyaporn Siripornpaiboon of the Department of Mineral Resources agreed that more needed to be done to educate the public on safety and risks in caves.
Chaiyaporn, who has explored caves in the country for more than 20 years, said caves in the country had not been scientifically studied. About 3,700 caves have been reported, but only about 2,000 have been identified and located, with 20 of them longer than 10 kilometres. Tham Luang is ranked as the country’s fourth longest.
To manage caves properly in order to reduce risks, Chaiyaporn said they should be studied first before management, including mapping and zoning, is introduced.
Prachan said there are nearly 70 caves located in more than 150 national parks countrywide, and the knowledge about them, which is still much local, would be upgraded. Those in more than hundred forest parks, on the other hand, are still unknown, he added.
Prachan said the department has issued an order following the incident, to set up a cave management committee, under which rescue issues would be addressed.
Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department deputy chief Kobchai Boonyaorana called the incident “an unprecedented disaster”. He said the department would invite all concerned agencies to draw on the lessons learned in order to develop and put in place a new risk management plan to deal with the disaster.