Euro-View: A First Responder Take on Disaster Response
The greater impetus today on how the EU should provide humanitarian aid and best protect its citizens at home and abroad against natural and man-made disasters is both timely and welcome. Yet the ‘how best to do it’ debate has thus far eluded consensus.
For Europe’s first responders, the answer must combine three things: knowledge and expertise at the regional level, common doctrine and risk assessment between organisations at the international level and, finally, engagement of the citizen at the local level for purposes of resilience.
Natural and man-made disasters continue to plague communities with increasing frequency. First responders would suggest that we should start with a statement of purpose, since we all want to ensure that any community under threat can gain expeditious access to the greatest capacity of capabilities before, during and after a disaster strikes.
Practically delivering that capability and capacity does require resources that are fit for purpose and capable of operating in unfamiliar and even hostile disaster environments. That means building on solid foundations that recognise the reality of multi-dimensional and multi-layered operations and which share commonality in definitions, doctrine and standards.
This is essential because there is significant diversity in how local, regional and national governments in Europe organise their emergency response to everyday incidents and disasters. We have to live with this legacy of cultural, geographical and historical differences. It should come as no surprise that first responder communities may share many ideals but do not conform to any single organisational model.
Although this international diversity is easily perceived as a weakness, there is strength in it too. Major emergencies have been satisfactorily handled by municipal and national governments over the decades precisely due to the flexibility and local knowledge they can apply to the situation.
However, mutual aid is most effective when it is technically coordinated. This translates into interoperability and accepted cross-organisational doctrines that recognise and share risk and threat assessments, and support rapid deployment of a skilled workforce and appropriate resources. This is not a simple task since the provision of technical capability owes as much to shared practice, training and exchange of ideas as it does to having the best tools and equipment.
Deploying the best technology requires financial investment to support learning and assist procurement. Take the need for inter-service emergency mobile radio or the use of satellite imagery as examples. Both are available but often at a cost that exceeds municipal budgets. Equipment interoperability, training and exercising also come with price tags that are sometimes out of reach.
Meanwhile, we all accept the idea of ever-improving resilience but there must be meaningful dialogue with those who are expected to deliver it. Whether the disaster is a wildfire in the Mediterranean region or a flood in Pakistan, the challenge is to quickly respond and scale up from national to multi-national planning and response. This needs to link resilience planning from the top down to the street level.
And that means better engagement of the individual citizen. This can be a difficult but rewarding process since citizen-centred local resilience – where education and communication profoundly make the difference between survival and loss – remains a major contributor to reducing vulnerability.
The disaster-response proposals put forward in late October by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid (DG ECHO) represent a supportable change in how we might now promote cross-border cooperation in this policy area, whilst retaining national integrity and diversity. There remains, of course, the political challenge of how to integrate these proposals with the EU’s new Internal Security Strategy and the aspirations of its new External Action Service, which will boost the EU’s role as a global aid donor.
Once aligned, these three stands of EU action can make a real difference by giving Europe’s first-responder communities access to the experience, tools and technology that lie beyond their locality or financial reach. Coherence in disaster response needs both political and operational investment. It also needs a vision that is shared by those directly involved in its delivery.
With a sensible and sensitive approach to these issues, the Commission and European Parliament can, in tandem with local authorities and first responders, help improve Europe’s disaster response.
And today’s shared economic austerity might just be the missing catalyst to make this happen.