Bringing about change

One of the reasons I formed Safe Communities Algarve in 2012 was to help improve communication between the authorities and the community.

Another reason was to help bring about change – a change in public behaviour, through creating greater awareness that encourages people to adopt crime prevention and civil protection measures and a change in government action by recognising the needs of the international communities in Portugal.

Public safety – the current threats
Perhaps the greatest threat to public safety is rural fires. It is a threat we at Safe Communities recognised shortly after we formed by entering into formal protocols with the national civil protection authority (ANPC).

As a part of this, we organised seminars throughout the Algarve and it was clear from feedback that there was a need for greater awareness on matters ranging from the cleaning of land (fuel management) to protecting oneself in the event of fires.

The Pedrógão Grande fires showed, once again, that it takes a disaster for changes to take place. In this case, the cost was high with over 100 lives lost including those in the subsequent fires in October.

During these fires, we met with the ANPC and it was obvious, even without the subsequent enquiry ordered by the Prime Minister, that there was a need for improvement in many areas, including public communication.

A simple matter, but when the structure of government is such that prevention and protection against rural fires rests with different departments and ministries, there are bound to be coordination difficulties.

2018 a year of change
At the start of 2018, we had a very useful meeting with the ANPC, resulting in us translating the public ANPC Weather Warning bulletins (50 in 2018) into English. Subsequently, these have been circulated by Turismo de Portugal to all tourism entities.

In February, we were invited to meet with the new Secretary of State for Civil Protection proposing a number of ideas mainly aimed at improving communication.

Resulting from the review into the fires, the Agency for the Integrated Management of Rural Fires (AGIF) was created by the Prime Minister to implement the review findings. Safe Communities Portugal was invited to work with the unit, which has helped us carry forward many of our ideas.

The consequence of all this is that 2018 has been one of the most challenging years for our association with the development of some 20-odd projects working with the AGIF, ANPC, ICNF, GNR and tourism officials.

Changes came very fast with an avalanche of new legislation concerning fuel management, which few people, even the experts, could understand.

I am, therefore, grateful to the ICNF, GNR and IPMA in Lisbon whom we met several times at the start of 2018 in helping in this matter. This resulted in leaflets produced on a national scale for the first time, in English, French and German, on land cleaning and in English on the safe burning of debris and the rural fire risk index.

The creation of the government’s “Safe Village – Safe People” programme was perhaps the first step forward focusing on self-protection measures against rural fires. It is a sad fact that there will always be rural fires in Portugal and that the emergency services will not always be able to control fires at the outset – self-protection is essential.

In order to do this, however, people need to be aware of what action to undertake. With our new arrangements in place with the AGIF and ANPC, we now have the “Safe Village – Safe People” PowerPoint presentation in English, a video in 12 parts with English subtitles and leaflets in seven languages.

Protecting tourists
A matter we have campaigned for some time is to ensure that tourists are made aware of the rural fire risks and what action to take in the event a fire breaks out, especially those staying in the rural areas participating in off-road activities. Although we had had our own publicity material for some time, it was not until a meeting with the Secretary of State for Tourism that the government formally agreed to produce a leaflet, entitled “Safe Holidays”, which is now available in all tourism offices throughout the country.

What needs to be done?
Certainly, 2019 will be a challenging year. The newly-introduced government SMS system alerting people in the event of major fires is working well, but it does not cover other major catastrophes. We have taken this up with the ANPC. We will be working with the ICNF regarding any changes to the fuel management laws or procedures. We will also be working with the government concerning the timely and accurate dissemination of information in English during major fires and other catastrophes.

Our thanks
Of course, all of this we could not have achieved ourselves and we thank those officials in government, the British and other embassies, and others who have helped and supported us.

If any readers would like to work with us on a voluntary basis, helping the community, we are very pleased to hear from you. We wish everyone a very Happy and Safe New Year.

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.
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