In the first of this two-part feature published on December 19, I covered the forming of Safe Communities Portugal (SCP) and the initial challenges we faced.
Following the rural fires in the Algarve in 2012, it was clear that, similar to crime prevention, closer engagement was required between the public and the authorities, especially as regards to fire prevention and protection. We, therefore, established a protocol with the Algarve Civil Protection Authority (CDOS) and then with the ANPC (now ANEPC) in Lisbon.
Over the years, we worked closely with these authorities in creating greater awareness, especially concerning land cleaning, preparedness and how people should protect themselves in the event of fires.
Safe Communities’ fifth anniversary with former Secretary of State for Tourism, Ana Mendes Godinho (third from right).
Communication is perhaps, apart from Covid-19, the biggest challenge we have faced. Until more recently, at national government level, there was no communication in English on civil protection matters that could prevent injuries and the loss of life in a catastrophe, such as an earthquake or major fire, and very little, if any, communication with tourists should this occur.
It was at this stage, just after the major fires of 2017, that I met two of the most inspiring people in government – Ana Mendes Godinho, then Secretary of State for Tourism (now Minister of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security), and Tiago Oliveira, who had been appointed by the prime minister as head of the newly-formed Forest Fire Information Management System (SGIF).
What happened over the next few months could form a chapter in a book, but what was achieved, I believe, went on to help save lives and injuries in subsequent fires such as the Monchique fire, simply because the community and tourists were more aware prior and during the incident, in a language they could understand. There have been many improvements since then.
Although, of course, we never know when the next crisis may occur, we at Safe Communities Portugal had been preparing extremely diligently for such an event, being ready to provide a supporting role to the government.
We, therefore, increased the size and breadth of our capability considerably, decision-making, technology, and the agility of the association. We also built a team of loyal volunteers that are capable of meeting any large-scale crisis. We trained to become a statutory civil protection volunteer organisation, the only non-Portuguese association to achieve this status.
To build our experience, we attended various civil protection crisis management and emergency exercises in matters such as rural fires, tsunami and earthquakes, railway and aircraft accidents, and radiological spills, for example.
We travelled to different areas of the country such as Leiria, Coimbra, Talasnal and Penamacor, near Castelo Branco, giving presentations on the work of Safe Communities and how we help communities. We also became very much involved in the development of the Safe Village – Safe People programme working with the ANEPC, tourism boards, and SGIF, for instancing, translating this into seven languages.
In all, we undertook around 20-plus projects with the government, too numerous to describe, over 2-3 years, including making available the daily fire-risk charts and, with the ICNF, the online guide to land cleaning in English.
A major step forward occurred in 2017 with the launch of the second round of the Local Security Contracts (CLS) programme, which mainly focused on the Algarve area and some areas of Lisbon. This initiative by the Ministry of Internal Administration (MAI) was to form contracts with the mayors in these areas, focusing on the elements and causes of crime, bringing together various entities and NGOs in each municipality.
An important element of our crime prevention work are displays, seminars and other awareness events, which provide us the opportunity to meet many people in the community. Although the Algarve continues to be the main focus, with the help of Colin Scarisbrick, a former UK police officer, we have held these in Caldas da Rainha and the surrounding area.
Our biggest challenge was yet to come, however, namely the outbreak of the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China.
When the news first emerged from China and the WHO in January 2020 of the outbreak of the new coronavirus, it rang alarm bells taking me back to Hong Kong in 2002 with the outbreak of SARS. As a senior police officer, I was inevitably involved in dealing with this outbreak, which went on to kill around 300 people in such a condensed place – I learned a great deal from that experience!
As such, in January, Safe Communities decided, in our official capacity as a voluntary civil protection organisation, to monitor developments closely; in fact, I believe we were the first organisation in Portugal to do this for the foreign community. One concern from the outset was false news and misleading information. We forewarned the community about this at the time, before the first new coronavirus case was confirmed here.
Our aim during this pandemic is to help government in its efforts to provide informed official information and advice to the population, in order to help the community stay safe.
Specifically, we provide such information in English and other languages for non-Portuguese speakers and visitors. We try, where possible, to clarify to the population government information and advice, help with public enquiries (and there are many), liaise with government and embassies, counter misinformation and make proposals to government where we consider a need to do so.
Our work is only possible because we have a loyal team of volunteers who work without pay 24/7 when required. These include our current management board: Eliana Taveras, Lilia Martins, Fernanda Gonçalves, Mike Evans, Jim Litchko and Raoul Rui Martinez, President of our General Assembly.
We thank everyone for your support and look forward to the next 10 years. We are always looking for volunteers, so if you wish to help the community, please contact us at [email protected]
A Happy and Safe Christmas to you all.
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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