Too shy to ask about Civil Protection?

Well now you don’t have to because here is everything you need to know about EU civil protection and how it saves lives around the world.

A civil protection exercise in the UK. Exercises such as these give professionals experience in dealing with large scale disasters. © EU/ECHO/Jack Taylor

First of all, what is civil protection?

Civil protection concerns natural and man-made 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 or natural disaster, 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.

Hurricane Matthew flooded most of southern Haiti in late 2016. French firefighters deployed mobile water purification stations through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism to provide safe drinking water for Haitians. © Ministère de l’Intérieur/Formations Militaires de la Sécurité Civile 2016

The scope of natural disasters has also changed in recent years: 2017 was an intense year for forest fires in Europe. 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.

“Climate change is real. Climate change is here. Climate change is not fake news,” Commissioner Christos Stylianides speaking at the Civil Protection Forum in Brussels, March 2018.

With all this talk about natural disasters, 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.

An earthquake simulation exercise in Denmark gives civil protection professionals the opportunity to practice emergency response. © Modex/Mareike Harms

The Mechanism currently has 34 participating states which consist of 28 EU member states plus Iceland, Norway, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Turkey.

Participating states commit resources to a voluntary pool (officially known as the European Emergency Response Capacity). 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 300 requests for assistance. This number includes 32 requests in 2017 alone, of which more than half were requests for assistance against forest fires which ravaged southern European countries during an exceptionally severe forest fire season.

French water bombers help to put out forest fires near Mount Vesuvius in Italy in July 2017. © European Union/ECHO/Claire Kowalewski

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 the refugee and migration crisis in Greece and the devastating Nepal earthquake in 2015; the Mexico earthquake, and hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean in 2017.

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:

Monitoring disasters worldwide, 24 hours a day. © EU

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:

This is how the EU Civil Protection Mechanism works. © EU

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.

Agostino Goretti speaking at the European Civil Protection Forum in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2018. © EU

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.

Virpi Tuulikki Teinila speaking at the European Civil Protection Forum in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2018. © EU

It also includes people like Fernando Adrados Moran.

Fernando Adrados Moran, Lieutenant Pilot, Spanish Air Force, speaking at the European Civil Protection Forum in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2018. © EU

Fernando is a lieutenant pilot with the Spanish Air Force. He was part of a team composed of three other Spanish pilots, two French, two Italian, two 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.

Wow, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism is pretty amazing.

It is! 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. But there’s more to come. In November 2017, the European Commission proposed a new system to strengthen the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

The Commission wants to do this by creating a reserve of resources managed by the EU to complement the voluntary system which currently exists. The voluntary pool will continue to be the central pillar of the Mechanism, but the proposal offers higher financial incentives to encourage participating states to commit further resources to this new reserve.

There will also be the establishment of a Civil Protection Knowledge Network which will facilitate training and joint exercises.

The objective is to create a more systematic European response to disasters.

This new proposal is called rescEU.

That’s a cool name. So rescEU is a proposal to beef up the Mechanism?

Exactly that. It’s an upgrade to the existing system and will serve as a safety net for when a country’s ability to tackle a disaster is overwhelmed.

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.

You can learn more about the EU Civil Protection Mechanism here and you can get the latest updates from the ERCC right here.

By Amy Duong, online editor, with contributions from Tim Gillmair, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.