First of all, what is civil protection?
Civil protection concerns disasters, incidences of which can occur at any moment and often leave a trail of destruction and loss of life in their wake. Put simply, civil protection consists of assistance delivered by a government in the immediate aftermath of a man-made disaster or natural hazard, and preventative measures to reduce the impact of future disasters.
Depending on the nature of the disaster, this assistance can take different forms such as:
- Search and rescue operations
- Forest and urban fire-fighting
- The deployment of medical personnel
- Water purification
- Temporary emergency shelter
All this to say, civil protection needs to be implemented rapidly to save lives, and to limit the impact of disasters to the environment and cultural heritage. The next disaster is always just around the corner so preparation is paramount.
The scope of disasters has also changed in recent years. In 2019, fires represented 30% of all requests for assistance. But it’s not just fires that are on the up; floods, storms, earthquakes, and landslides are now more complex and devastating, their effects exacerbated by climate change.
With all this talk about disasters arising from natural hazards, it’s important to remember that civil protection also covers the aftermath of man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks; and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats.
So what is the European Union (EU) doing in relation to civil protection?
The reality is that disasters know no borders and countries often have to work together. In 2001, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was established to foster cooperation among civil protection authorities across Europe. It enables rapid and coordinated response at European level to ensure that assistance meets the needs of the disaster-affected region without duplicating relief efforts.
The Mechanism currently has all EU Member States plus 6 further participating states Iceland, Norway, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Turkey.
These states commit resources to a pool (officially known as the European Civil Protection Pool). These resources may be experts, equipment, and transportation. Whenever an emergency strikes and a request for assistance via the Mechanism is received, assistance is drawn from this pool of resources.
Any country in the world and even international organisations can request assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Since its launch in 2001, the Mechanism has received more than 330 requests for assistance. This number includes 20 requests in 2019 alone, such as requests for assistance to fight forest fires in Greece, or assistance to Mozambique after two consecutive tropical cyclones hit the region.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism was called upon to assist in response to some of the biggest emergencies in recent years both inside and beyond the EU, including lifesaving support to Sint-Maarten and Dominica (2017) and the Bahamas (2019) after tropical cyclones, the Ebola outbreak in DR Congo (2018), the tsunami in Indonesia (2018), forest fires in Sweden, Latvia and Portugal (2018), Greece and Bolivia (2019), earthquakes in Albania (2019), and the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus (2020).
How is all this help coordinated?
Requests for assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism are made to the European Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). Based in Brussels, Belgium, the ERCC operates 24/7 to monitor disasters around the globe. This is what it looks like:
In the event of an emergency, the ERCC communicates with national civil protection authorities which are part of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism to coordinate and deploy resources to disaster-stricken countries. In short, the ERCC ensures EU assistance gets to where it is needed, as quickly as possible. Here’s a neat graphic to illustrate how it works:
Additionally, the ERCC facilitates emergency communications through the Common Emergency Communication and Information System (CECIS), a web-based alert and notification application which enables real-time exchange of information on disasters.
Who are the people delivering this assistance?
That would be people like Agostino Goretti. He’s a senior earthquake engineer from Italy and his job is to make buildings more resistant to earthquakes.
Then there’s Virpi Tuulikki Teinila who is an emergency health expert from Finland. She makes sure that injured people get the first aid they need.
It also includes people like Captain Fernando Adrados Moran.
Fernando is a Captain with the Spanish Air Force. He was part of a team composed of 3 other Spanish pilots, 2 French, 2 Italian, 2 Portuguese, plus one from Morocco who helped to control Portugal’s deadliest wildfires in June 2017; the fires claimed 66 lives, and were so intense that flames reached heights of 40 metres.
“Flying over a 40,000 hectare fire like the one in Portugal is like flying over the moon. As far as the eye can reach, you can only see grey, you can only see black,” Fernando recalls.
“Going through all these experiences have given me a unique perspective on the damage and destruction that these wildfires cause. This is not only something which affects animals, trees, and the people whose houses burn. It affects you and me, but most importantly, it’s affecting our planet.”
Through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, dedicated national civil protection professionals from all over the EU work together. The result is expertise which is greater than the sum of its parts.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism ensures true European cooperation is possible.
European countries coming together to tackle and prevent disasters, and ultimately save lives; it’s EU solidarity in action and is the central responsibility of a Europe that protects its citizens and people in need. In 2019, the EU strengthened all components of its disaster risk management to better protect citizens from disasters.
This new element, called rescEU, established a reserve of capacities.
So rescEU is a proposal to beef up the Mechanism?
The Commission established a new European reserve of resources to complement the voluntary system which existed beforehand. The European Civil Protection Pool continues to be the central pillar of the Mechanism. But to strengthen the Mechanism in the long run extra resources are needed.
States that offer these additional rescEU capacities receive EU-funding in return, as a compensation for contributing with additional resources for future disasters. This way, the continent will be better prepared and respond to different types of emergencies, such as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear emergencies, and through common stockpiling of medicine.
There will also be the establishment of a Civil Protection Knowledge Network which will facilitate training and joint exercises, essential for rapid deployment in a crisis.
The objective is to create a more systematic European response to disasters.
It will mean that people like Agostino, Virpi, and Fernando can continue to be on call for when the next disaster strikes, and ultimately keep us all safe.
By Amy Duong, online editor, with contributions from Tim Gillmair, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.