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This post is dedicated to Moeed and his mother Mumtaz – both innocent victims of the 19th September blast in DHA, Karachi. And to thousands of other victims that have lost their lives to the brutalities of some.

Terrorism – It is a word the world has sadly gotten used to very fast. There used to be a time when only some parts of the world were at risk of experiencing it first hand, parts of world that were either under developed or those that were actively engaged in shaping foreign policies such as the USA and UK. This is no longer the case; now terrorism is a threat that is feared by countries and continents alike. From Mumbai to Manhattan and New Delhi to Norway, everyone is bracing for something bad to happen.

The word ‘terrorism‘ has many meanings as there are many different types of terrorism but a universally agreed upon meaning, which is: violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for a religious, political or ideological goal, and deliberately target or disregard the safety of civilians.

A country that is no stranger to the word has seen a large variety of terrorist acts, starting long ago when most people did not even know where it was located on the globe. Terrorism in Pakistan comes in as many shapes, sizes and forms as you can think of; ranging from explosions, arson, deadly rioting, target killing, religious persecution or simply a mugging or home invasion resulting in a number of people dead.

This Monday, 19 September 2011 it was a 300 kg car bomb (otherwise known as a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device – VBIED) that went off as it was driven into the house of the Senior Superintendent Police, Criminal Investigative Division, Chaudhry Aslam Khan in an area called ‘Defense Housing Authority (DHA)’ on the Karachi coastline. This house sits no more than 150 yards from a few schools out of which our daughter attends one and about 1.3 kilometers away from our house. This attack claimed the lives of eight people including a schoolboy named Moeed and his mother, a teacher at the same school as him, Mumtaz who like many others, were on their way to the start of the school day.

The saddest part about any bombing is that it extends farther out than just its immediate location by damaging all surrounding buildings, injuring and killing innocent citizens and leaving our children with fear and long lasting post traumatic stress.

While our house was safe and out of harm’s way, it was still close enough to have felt the impact early that morning. During the early hours of the morning of rushing around to head our daughter off to school, there was an enormous bang! The closest description would be for you to imagine 20 doors slamming shut all at once.

Thinking it could be one of the many alarming sounds we’re used to (cars backfiring, kids shooting firecrackers), we didn’t think too much about it. That is, until our phones started going off at the same time and we started receiving text messages from friends and family asking if we were safe and unhurt. Turning off the cartoons, exiting our daughter from the room and switching to the breaking news, we saw our daughter’s school sitting front and center in the camera shot, dangerously close to the origin of the bomb blast!

The schools suffered damages to the property and at this time are closed until further notice. A relative who also happens to attend the same school as our daughter but takes the school bus and therefore has to leave early. He arrived at the school approximately 10 minutes after the bomb went off and then was transported back home along with the other children, not before seeing shattered glass and doors inside the school.

Had it happened an hour later with students in school and more explosives packed into the bomb, results would have been catastrophic!

There are many questions parents will be asking themselves and (hopefully) the school administration very soon – some of which have already been asked but this time, a simple ‘we have a very vigilant watchman here’ will not suffice. When it comes to terrorism and children, we cannot be ignorant and play along and act as if everything will be fine, just because people tell us so.

  • What steps will the schools take in order to prevent injuries and loss of lives if this type of an incident occurs again?
  • Do the schools have emergency plans in place to handle a variety of natural and man-made disasters?
  • Are the staff and teachers trained to carry out the plans when an emergency takes place?
  • Will flow of traffic be more restricted and monitored in and around the school zones to prevent something like this from happening again?
  • Is letting school buses arrive at schools minutes after a bomb has gone off really the right thing to do? In many cases, a secondary explosive is set off minutes after the primary goes off.
  • Are we safer or more in danger by having a police facility next to schools knowing the types of threats these facilities draw in?

Given the recent statistics of terrorism in Karachi, they will most probably occur again. Not necessary at the same location; within the close vicinity of? Sure!

Most vulnerable targets of such acts of terrorism are outside the homes and offices of VIPs or while in transit, important infrastructure such as military and law enforcement facilities, supply routes and vehicles and sadly, targets that will cause a great amount of psychological impact such as people in the middle of offering their prayers in a mosque; a religious procession in the month of Moharram; holiday shopping sprees in malls; children attending schools, etc.

What makes this worse is that all of these incidents have taken place and yet no real interest in preparing for future incidents has been sparked.

So the million-dollar question is: What can a school do to safeguard against these threats? Well for starters, it can conduct a threats and risks analyses and use them to establish guidelines and procedures for its staff, parents, teachers and students. Train everyone on what to expect, how to react, what to do and more importantly, what NOT to do. When it comes to disasters, whether man-made or natural, what counts the most is preparation and the ability to respond!

Imagine yourself as a teacher on the first or second floor of a school with 20 students in the classroom and there are eight to ten classrooms in total, with only two exits. You have 160 to 200 students that are anywhere from six to ten years old that are scared, confused, crying, shocked and need their teachers to think FOR them. If the teachers and staff do not know how to react to a sudden explosion or earthquake, one can only imagine what the results would be.

A good threats assessment will not only identify areas that need the school administrator’s urgent attention, it will also make them ask themselves important questions such as:

  • What parts of the school are most vulnerable and to which threats?
  • What happens when an incident like this takes place?
  • What do the students do right after an incident takes place?
  • What steps do the teachers take to safeguard their students from further danger?
  • Will staff and teachers be able to react fast and calm and take charge of their students?
  • What roles and responsibilities does everyone assume?
  • How do the parents find out about their child(ren) if the phone lines are down?
  • How can the parents help the school achieve a better state of readiness?
  • How will urgent medical treatment be provided for in case the school is cut off from outside help?
  • How many people need to be trained in emergency first aid to cover the schools worse case scenario?
  • How do the parents pick up their children if the entire area is affected and cordoned off?
  • Does the school have an emergency supplies cache in case it is too dangerous to go outside?
  • Will the school be able to recover from a disaster and resume some level of normalcy soon after?
  • Does the school have an information point of contact for parents to find out important information?

In cases such as this recent attack near the school, more people get hurt in the panic that comes after the attacks than by the incident itself. It is no longer adequate to run things on a day-to-day basis with ad-hoc arrangements; careful planning  is needed to ensure safety standards are maintained and regular training needs to be conducted to ensure plans are followed when needed and improved over time.

Infrastructure also needs to be re-visited and assessed whether it is capable of handling such incidents or not; are the windows secure and fitted with safety film to avoid shattering; are proper blast resistant doors installed and made to open outwards to avoid pressure from blasting the doors inwards and potentially cause injuries; is there a secure secondary exit and has it been regularly maintained to ensure no obstacles are in the path to this exit; are loose and heavy items securely bolted to the walls and floors to avoid injuries from falling objects?                                 

The school our daughter attends happens to be one of the best the country has to offer, with foreign exchange programs, scholarships, music programs, extra curricular activities such as martial arts and roller blading and parents spend a lot of money to put their children in these programs. An emergency management program would cost no more than roller blading does but will go a long way for the safety of everyone involved, not just the students but staff and teachers as well.

There are two ways this state of preparedness and prevention can be achieved:

1. School Administration looks at past incidents and future threats and takes an initiative to step up its efforts to make their campus a safe and secure environment for its population to be in. It involves all stakeholders including the student body, parents, teachers, staff, community residents and local government to help reach its goals.

2. Parents and other stakeholders of the school take it upon themselves to ensure that the above goals are met by initiating dialog with the school administration and actively work to help them set things in motion. While the school has the primary responsibility to ensure everyone is kept safe and secure within its premise, sometime it does not appear on the top of their priority list or they feel that whatever arrangements they do have in place, will be sufficient!

Coming out to the streets and protesting is all well and good but at the end of the day, protests in Pakistan only go so far because after the protests are over; everyone goes back to their routines.

Remember – Prevention is the Best Cure!

Stay Well – Stay Safe!

Naveed Khan
Founder | Chief Consultant
AfterShock-CEM

*All images are courtesy of various websites on the web – photos of the damaged school facilities were taken from The Express Tribune and all rights are that of the tribune website.

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