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Lessons to be learned

By George Philis
There was a sigh of relief this week as Cyprus came out of the woods from devastating fires, even though the realisation that a change in culture is needed also came through loud and clear.

For five days, fires raging out of control have burned through 15 square kilometres of forest, threatened homes and claimed the lives of two firefighters who died when their water tanker overturned and fell off a cliff. But the death and destruction has also exposed a number of failures in how the state reacted to the fires, with experts saying there is a desperate need for a change in culture.

One expert, George Boustras who is Dean and Associate Professor in Risk Assessment at the European University Cyprus, believes he has the right recipe to turn a failed reactive attitude into a pro-active campaign.
Boustras told the Cyprus Weekly that the state needs to come up with a general policy that would encourage people to think about risk in a new way and relate it properly to all levels of society.

“Different people have different ways of perceiving risk, so the state needs to mount a holistic campaign that would create a new risk perception,” he said.

The expert also said it is important for the state to communicate clearly these ideas as well as build the organisational aspects around local characteristics, so that they can make sense and be embraced by different people.

Lack of organisation
In addition to the frustration in volunteers who rushed to help put out the fires, there was an apparent lack of organisation at the top.

A case in point was the centre of operations set up in Galata, which consisted of the Fire Service Department, Police, National Guard, Civil Defence and a volunteering organisation running First Aid and providing food supplies.
But none of these units acted as head of operations with the responsibility of running the entire mission.
Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis admitted yesterday on state radio that there was confusion at the coordination level, but he also attributed some of that to the media which was essentially talking to everyone or whoever was available on site.

Lack of communication
The Cyprus Weekly has learned that the Forestry Department had set up shop at a different location and was not always informed about decisions made at the Galata centre and was not being fed new or accurate information.
A case in point was the fire in Spilia where volunteer Tommy Xenofontos was on his way with his water tanker on Tuesday. He told CW on his way driving up to Spilia, Forestry Department coordinating officials told him he would need to turn back and fill up further down, but he ended up going forward to his father’s house in the village to save time.

“By the time it took to fill the water tanker, about 20 minutes, the fire had advanced halfway down the hill towards the village,” Xenofontos said.

One criticism was the fact that Forestry Department and Fire Services did not share a common phone number.

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