Chilean progress in emergency management

The 2010 Chilean earthquake and tsunami gravely affected two million people and generated losses of US$30 billion, approximately 18% of national GDP, according to official figures from the country’s financial regulatory authority. In fact, between 1980 and 2011, Chile registered average annual losses of around 1.2% of GDP as a result of natural disasters. While adequate emergency management is a critical factor for all nations, this holds particularly true for a country seeking to mitigate the serious and ongoing risks posed by Mother Nature. In the case of Chile, this approach also includes entering into cooperation agreements with other nations, including the United States.

By Claudia Marín

The Secretario Nacional de Bomberos (National Secretary of Firefighters), Raúl Bustos, was in charge of the coordination work undertaken in the area around Constitucion following the 2010 earthquake. Despite the subsequent arrival of over a thousand volunteers to the region, which was one of the most severely affected by the earthquake, the area was inadequately prepared to confront a situation of such magnitude. As a result, it was not only emergency assistance that was required, but also clarity regarding the chain of command.

The earthquake marked a before and after in terms of emergency management in Chile. The seismic event that shook the central-south of the country at 3:34am on 27 February 2010 was one of the most devastating to strike Chile and, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the sixth largest in history.

With a magnitude of 8.8, the earthquake (known locally as 27F) struck 233 municipalities and 370,000 homes, gravely affecting 2 million people. In financial terms, in was the fifth most expensive in history, representing 18% of Chilean GDP, according to the report ‘Terremoto 2010’ (‘2010 Earthquake’) compiled by the Superintendencia de Valores y Seguros (Superintendence of Securities and Insurance). The same report highlights government estimates of the economic impact of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami at around US$30 billion.

The situation revealed the lack of adequate infrastructure for confronting a disaster on this scale, as well as a severe lack of coordination among the key authorities involved in the emergency response.

For firefighters, it was the turning point and highlighted the need to create a national operations system to coordinate a streamlined movement of response teams across the country. What was most needed, says Bustos, was the systemization of procedures.

“The United Nations has always said that in Chile, maybe due to national idiosyncrasies, people are not fans of written procedures and protocols. Today, at least, the Chilean Fire Service is”, he adds.

Reforming the system

Chile is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters because of its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a region highly susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that sits directly above the meeting point of tectonic plates. Its extensive coastline means the majority of the country is at the mercy of tsunamis and other tidal waves, and it also has to contend with over 500 potentially active volcanoes.

Largely as a consequence of its precarious geographical location, between 1980 and 2011, Chile registered average annual losses of around 1.2% of GDP due to natural disasters, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

This statistics reveals how preparation is a key element in overcoming adversity. Due to its administrative characteristics, Chile responds to emergencies through State infrastructure, such as municipal, provincial and regional authorities, as well as the Ministerio del Interior (Ministry of the Interior). The country relies on public and private entities to support the Sistema Nacional de Protección Civil (National Civil Protection System), or SNPC by its Spanish acronym, whose technical organizations monitor threats and activate alert systems, in conjunction with the Oficina Nacional de Emergencias (Office of National Emergencies), or Onemi.

In turn, Onemi is responsible for coordinating, planning and executing preventative action, alerts, responses and immediate reconstruction efforts. Through the Sistemas de Comandos de Incidentes (Incident Command Systems), or SCI, specialized institutions also participate in these processes, while certain entities, such as the military, contribute their expertise across a range of situations.

According to Rodrigo Cienfuegos, Director of the Centro Nacional de Investigación para la Gestión Integrada de Desastres Naturales (National Research Center for Integrated Disaster Risk Management), or CIGIDEN, this system was insufficient for coping with the situation arising from the 2010 earthquake and tsunami.

In response, in 2011 the government of Sebastián Piñera took steps to modernize Onemi by submitting a bill to Congress that sought to establish the Sistema Nacional de Emergencias y Protección Civil (National Emergencies and Civil Protection System) as well as the Agencia Nacional de Protección Civil (National Civil Protection Agency). In 2013, the bill was subject to discussion in the Senate, but in 2014 President Michelle Bachelet introduced a substitution clause which resulted in the bill undergoing a thorough review.

This resulted in a revised bill that now seeks to create the Sistema Nacional de Gestión de Riesgos y Emergencias (National Risk and Emergencies Management System), along with its implementation mechanism, the Servicio Nacional de Gestión de Riesgos y Emergencias (National Risk and Emergencies Management System). This bill is currently under discussion in Congress.


Onemi recognizes that 27F revealed distinct operational and preventative shortcomings in the national emergency response system. Nevertheless, the organization stresses how it has learned the appropriate lessons and that this has led to the creation of a comprehensive civil protection system with strong institutions. This was demonstrated by Onemi’s response to the large earthquakes that affected the localities of Iquique in 2014 (8.2 magnitude), Coquimbo in 2015 (8.4 magnitude) and Chiloe in 2016 (7.6 magnitude).

In response to the 2015 Coquimbo earthquake, then-head of UNISDR, Margareta Wahlström, noted that “On this occasion, Chilean investment in resilient infrastructure, early warning systems and urban planning has led to fewer fatalities, despite the sizeable magnitude of the quake”.

With this in mind, Ricardo Toro, National Director of Onemi, explains that climate change and the increasing vulnerability of different regions to the full force of nature “obliges us to consider more complex scenarios. In turn, this requires the creation of a legally binding and cross-cutting framework that facilitates the deployment of integrated expertise”.

In the long term, an emergency agency, with improved powers and management capabilities, must be combined with the mandatory application of planning that incorporates all levels under a common government vision, says Toro. Furthermore, a law to define these aspects as well as to establish the responsibilities of SNPC committees and members, and the incorporation of management instruments and budgetary funds are also required.

In the meantime, Onemi has taken steps to overcome the prevailing shortcomings. For example, regional management offices were created in 2008 and began to operate in 2010 with six staff working 24 hours a day. Today, each center has a personnel of 15 and includes Centros de Alerta Temprana (Early Warning Centers), or CATs, that are connected centrally to the CAT Nacional (National CAT) and their respective Sistemas Regionales de Protección Civil (Regional Civil Protection Systems).

In addition, standby communication systems have been established, including the Red Satelital de Emergencia (Emergency Satellite Network) and the Red Nacional de Telecomunicaciones HF (National High Frequency Telecommunications Network), as well as a fleet of vehicles equipped with radio satellites.

Clear protocols, standardized procedures, telecommunication tests and simulations have all been developed and implemented as a result. The Visor de Gestión de Riesgo de Desastres (Disasters Risk Management Viewer), or GRD, has also been launched as a platform to identify areas at risk. It includes over 40,000 data entries related to critical infrastructure that could be affected by an emergency. There is also a new Sistema de Alerta de Emergencia (Emergency Alert System), or SAE, in which tsunami alerts are broadcast via cellular phones and coastal sirens in the Regions of Arica and Parinacota, Tarapaca, Antofagasta, O’Higgins and Maule.

Greater collaboration

International experience has been an important underlying factor in redefining public institutions in this context. Japan, for example, is a noteworthy reference point due to the prioritization of prevention and civic culture within that country’s national emergency system. Its approach means that the general public is encouraged to play an active role in overcoming disaster situations.

The United States has also contributed to the development of Chile’s emergency response capabilities. California in particular has been prominent due to its own experience of natural disasters. For example, in 2016, after five years of severe drought, the state was hit by flooding that caused large-scale damage. That was followed by a spate of serious forest fires in 2017, the most recent of which in December precipitated the evacuation of 100,000 people from their homes.

In fact, it was precisely another fire, one that affected 620 hectares near Oakland in 1991, that motivated the state to create an organized, multi-level emergency response system, capable of providing a structure to the flow of information and resources.

“The state of California is considered a leader in emergency management” says Helen López, Assistant Director of International Affairs at California’s Governor Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). “Having experienced so many natural disasters, we have learned to manage, prepare, train for and overcome these types of situation. The system we use in California and across the United States generally is the Standardized Emergency Management System”, she adds.

Under this system, all relevant agencies work together within a single mechanism that prioritizes needs and directs all responses and information to the relevant stakeholders. López explains that this system was adopted by the federal government and that in order for Washington DC to contribute funds to the local and state levels, the use of this system has become necessary.

López explains that as a result of this sophisticated approach to emergency management, “a large number of delegations come to California to learn, since many countries want to adopt the system for themselves”.

Chile is one of these. In 2011, a delegation of 24 representatives from Onemi, the Carabineros (the national police force) and Conaf (the national forest corporation), among others, traveled to California. Since then, the relationship and work in preparation, training and exchange of best practices between Chile and California has flourished.

As such, in 2016 a memorandum of understanding was signed with the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to strengthen risk reduction related to disasters and to promote resilience in both countries. Towards that end, the Director of Cal OES, Mark Ghilarducci, in conjunction with the Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), Ken Pimlott, as well as other authorities traveled to Chile to learn about the local work being undertaken. Pimlott also signed a collaboration agreement with Conaf to reinforce prevention and risk management in forest fires.

Private sector response

The interruption of basic services is another issue that must be confronted following an emergency. Indeed, this issue was one of the topics of intense public debate in Chile in 2017, particularly following the electricity blackouts and water cuts that affected Santiago and other cities as a result of landslides and severe storms.

The interruptions continued for a number of days in certain areas, placing the preparedness of the utility companies involved in doubt. Experts put these natural phenomena down to global warming and undoubtedly this is something that is posing a challenge to public service companies in general.

For example, the General Manager of the Asociación de Empresas Eléctricas (Association of Electricity Companies), Rodrigo Castillo, argues that the events of 2017 demonstrate the need to define certain key aspects. These include the type of electricity network that Chile wants to construct moving forward, the regulatory standards that are required to confront emergency situations, and how these steps can be fulfilled.

Accordingly, companies from this sector are adapting and improving their processes through a range of initiatives, including intensifying permanent plans for clearing vegetation located near to electricity transmission lines; incorporating new technologies, such as drones, into their operations; utilizing new protective equipment for energy infrastructure; and incorporating the coating of lines, among other measures.

The Asociación Nacional de Servicios Sanitarios (National Association of Santitary Services), or Andess, stresses that its industry generally responds well to contingencies. For example, three days after the 2010 earthquake, 87.5% of the water supply had been restored, rising to 90% after five days.

Executive President of Andess, Víctor Galilea, underlines that the sanitary sector as a whole invested US$537 million in 2016, which is 17% more than in 2015. Half of this figure, he stresses, was earmarked to ensure the production of drinking water and the construction and maintenance, as well as the search for, new water sources.

Also in this industry, Aguas Andinas has joined the SNPC and is working with the authorities to forge a culture of prevention. The company also participates in the Servicio de Gestión de Crisis y Resiliencia de las Organizaciones (Crisis Management and Organizational Resilience Service), or SeCRO.

In the power sector, the Chilean energy company Empresa Nacional de Energía (ENEX) works with an Occupational Health and Safety and Environment management model that factors in preparedness in order to be able to operate under risk scenarios. This obliges the company to review and check its emergency and contingency planning in order to guarantee that its effectiveness and controls conform to the established standards.

Simulations, adoption of new technology and staff training are just some of the actions undertaken by the company in this regard.

Generally, despite pending tasks in terms of legislation and institutional framework, Chile appears to be progressing towards a more sustainable emergency management model, especially with regard to the consideration of the associated human, social and economic impacts of natural catastrophes.

Steps towards collaboration

Following the signing of distinct agreements between Chile and a range of US institutions that specialize in emergencies, Helen López explains that the Deputy Director of Planning and Preparation of Onemi has visited California as part of a knowledge exchange. During his/her visit, the Deputy Director was able to learn about the tsunami and earthquake program as well as Cal OES’ volunteer scheme.

Similarly, with the support of the Chile California Council and the Consul General, representatives of Conaf met their counterparts from CAL FIRE in September 2017 to conduct night overflight training, fire detection techniques, and responses to certain types of fires, among other aspects.

In October 2017, a team of two instructors traveled to Chile to work with Conaf and certify a group of around 40 people in the Community Emergency Response Team program, which instructs communities on how to respond in the first few hours of an emergency. “We see excellent leadership from Onemi, who are doing everything in their power to transfer the techniques and experience from California to Chile”, says López.

Word-class firefighters

One of the first actors to respond to any emergency is the fire service. Accordingly, following the shortcomings that were made evident throughout the system in 2010, a strategic decision was taken to strengthen the fire service’s procedures and to ensure it operated with specialized teams.

After seven years of preparation, in mid-November 2017 the Grupo Urban Search and Rescue Bomberos de Chile team was evaluated and certified by the United Nations International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG). In so doing, it became the first Latin American team to receive an international qualification for this work of this type. The accreditation means the team is now qualified to provide assistance internationally following natural disasters and other emergencies. The United States is the other country with certified teams in this category.

Research contribution

Until 27F, academic focus into seismology had concentrated on areas related to geophysics. This led to significant contributions to the development of construction standards, says Rodrigo Cienfuegos, from CIGIDEN, an entity that constitutes the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Universidad Andrés Bello, Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María and Universidad Católica del Norte.

Cienfuegos adds that the 2010 earthquake provoked a reaction from higher education institutions and Conicyt, the Chilean government’s student funding body, to begin allocating resources specifically towards interdisciplinary research on topics such as climate change and natural disasters, as well as the social sciences. One of the objectives of this research is to facilitate the determination of threats to the mental health of emergency response teams.


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