Nerve centre operates on a shoestring



Its gear consists of: * Four PCs * Two telephones * Two fax machines * A printer

CRAMPED in an office slightly smaller than a two-room Housing Board flat, 20 people make up Indonesia’s nerve centre for collecting and sending out critical information on an international catastrophe.

Half are government officials, the rest are volunteers helping to man the office on the sixth level of a nondescript building in Jakarta’s business district.

To monitor the raging fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan which have choked the region with a thick haze for weeks now, the office uses four four-year-old IBM computers, two telephones, two fax machines and a printer.

This is Jakarta’s haze command post, or the National Coordinating Team for Controlling Land and Forest Fires, Posko for short.

Its staff know only too well that they have a difficult task, given that their office is ill-equipped and under-manned.

“We have been slow to monitor and react to the fires mainly because we do not have the expertise,” said Mr Nabiel Makarim from the Environmental Impact and Management Agency (Bapedal) which oversees Posko’s daily operations.

He said that the 24-hour command post was set up just over a month ago, an initiative of Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja.

Its job is to receive and disseminate information about forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan to provincial governors.

Satellite pictures of the hot spots appear in full colour on the computer screens, sent from the United States and Singapore. Posko staffers then overlay the satellite images onto computerised maps of plantations and forestry firms operating in the areas to pinpoint where the fires are.

Provincial governors who are sent these maps via computer are urged to take action to check and stop the burning.

Posko only relays the information, but is unable to follow-up and check that action is taken because it is not an enforcement agency.

Similar posts exist in Riau, Bali and Ujung Pandang but with even fewer facilities, Mr Nabiel said. “So you can imagine how much output to expect from so little resources,” he added.

Posko’s Jakarta staff are drawn from Bapedal, and the military and intelligence community.

The centre has drawn the services of several volunteers aged 20 to 35, including some who are concerned about the environment, some computer buffs and a pilot who offered to help with map-reading.

Mr Nabiel said that Posko still lacked analytical tools to fully interpret the satellite information it received, and that was what it hoped to learn from countries like Singapore.

He could not say exactly how many computers and other sophisticated equipment the command post needed to beef up its operations.

Minister Sarwono said on Sunday the government badly needed information-technology equipment, mapping information and digital computer experts to locate hot spots.

He added: “If there are any experts out there, please help us here. If necessary, ask your company for an absence of leave.”

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