|The Courier N° 119 Jan - Febr 1990 - Dossier National Languages - Country Report: Gambia (EC Courier, 1990, 100 p.)|
Disasters do not just happen to other people. Europeans are fully aware of the fact that while they watch on their TV screens the unfolding of great disasters over-seas-whether Armenia, Bangladesh, the Caribbean or Sudan-there are plenty of major disasters very much closer to home. There have, in the past decade, been earthquakes in Italy, a disastrous chemical spill on the Rhine, the Chernobyl explosion, the flooding of Nîmes, the Lockerbie air crash, and a host of others. Behind the scenes of these natural disasters there is a new European sentiment-that although each country is best placed to deal with its own calamities, there is a strong argument for knowing more about what your neighbours are doing and can do.
That European solidarity exists, and has done for some time, is not in dispute: from 1977 to 1987 the Community budget disbursed more than ECU 95 m in grants to help with earthquakes, floods, snowstorms, cyclones and severe cold spells. But the existence of a budget line and the will to engage funds are only the start of the story. In 1987, a real programme of Community civil protection began when, on 25 May, the Council adopted a resolution which embodied Commission proposals whose objective is to have, in time, a real strategy at continental European level which will include all resources for fighting disasters: a strategy that goes beyond merely responding to emergencies and involves forecasting, prevention and early warning as well as rescue operations, aid and medium- and long-term reconstruction.
A diversity of traditions
It must, however, not be thought that the European dimension of civil protection is a simple matter of money or even organisation. By tradition, the responsibility for helping with disasters is the province of each Member States Home Affairs Ministry (with two exceptions; in Ireland this task is carried out by the Environment Department, and in Italy there is a Ministry of Civil Protection) but the actual work is carried out by military, pare-military or quasi-military forces. The uniforms, traditions and mentality of these latter make them, perhaps, less susceptible to concepts of harmonisation than other elements in society. Furthermore, quite apart from traditions of the countries involved, there is also a divergence in the history of types of national disaster. In the Mediterranean countries, there is a long history of natural disasters- earthquakes, volcanoes, forest fires, droughts, dam bursts and floods. In the northern countries, there are few natural hazards but a greater concentration on environmental issues industrial and chemical accidents, for example. In between, the Benelux countries, France and Germany, hold a position midway between the two extremes, and tend to be generous and cooperative but at an unofficial level. All this makes it difficult to envisage the same interest in Greece as in Denmark for expertise in chemical clean-ups, or in Denmark as in Greece for forest fire detection and control.
What European Civil Protection must aim to do is to create the optimum conditions for getting the thinking of national bodies concerned with civil protection aligned on similar lines, creating economies of scale and intensifying personal contacts. Given the difference in national traditions and the nature of natural disasters from country to country, there is a political aspect to all this: reinforcing European-wide predictive and reactive capability makes it easier for the European man in the street to see that Europe is working for him. Just as the European flag now flies alongside national flags in various countries, a European Civil Protection logo alongside the well-known symbols of national civil disaster squads will reinforce the feeling that European solidarity is real and that it has practical effects.
The Community has now a budget line for cooperation on civil protection, small as yet, but an earnest of its desire to forge ahead. A series of preliminary actions has already been singled out. This includes the compilation of a guide to civil protection, the establishment of a permanent network of liaison officers, more effective use of data banks and the holding of joint simulation exercises. The guide to civil protection is a practical manual intended for use by those responsible for civil protection and by the national authorities involved in planning disaster relief. The text, more than 300 pages supplemented by annexes, describes the current situation in member countries, indexes disasters and their characteristics, lists the multilateral and bilateral agreements signed on the subject between Member States, catalogues the disaster relief plans established at national, regional and local levels and lists the resources which could be made available to Community countries. The permanent network of civil servants responsible for civil protection and disaster relief has been in operation since I July 1987, and its establishment has allowed for a rapid exchange of information on the requirements and available resources in the Community for coping with natural or man-made disasters. There are now plans afoot to upgrade the network using electronic mail and a data transmission system to make it operationally viable. Existing data banks on the subject are being evaluated and inventoried with a view to establishing the feasibility of their interconnection. Studies are being undertaken to develop the evaluation of natural risks by satellite and to develop a secure communications network, not only for reference but for operational use. Much of the work now being undertaken is thus on the information side-between professionals themselves and between professionals and the public at large. But there comes a point when cooperation must pass from words even electronic words-to deeds, which is where Europe 89 comes in.
Europe 89: a simulated disaster
On the afternoon of 17 October 1989, a twin-jet medium-haul airliner took off from Orly Airport, Paris, on a charter flight to Spain, with 170 passengers and 5 crew on board. As it crossed the Gaillac navigation beacon, the pilot notified the Area Control Centre at Aix-en-Provence of pressurisation problems on board the aircraft and requested permission to descend to level 100 and continue the flight to Barcelona. A few minutes later, while trying to hand the aircraft over the Spanish air traffic control, the ACC realised that it had lost contact with the aircraft. The Search and Rescue Coordination Centre at Lyon Mont-Verdun was immediately requested to initiate an aeronautical investigation. Within five minutes the Centre contacted the Gendarmerie in the three departements closest to the flight path and last known position of the aircraft, with a yes/no request for information on sighting.
Fifteen minutes later, there was the first indication that something was wrong. While the Gendarmerie reported negatively, the French SARSAT satellite picked up a radio distress signal in the Pyrenees Orientales region. At the same time, Perpignan airport contacted the Area Control Centre with the information that an aircraft leaving Perpignan on a scheduled flight had picked up a signal from a radio distress beacon. Ten minutes later, the Search and Rescue Centre put two SAR (Search and Rescue) helicopters, one each from Aix and Perpignan on standby, alerted the Palma, Majorca Search and Rescue Centre (asking for a Spanish aircraft to be put on standby) and issued its second request for information to the prefect of Pyrenees Orientales.
The rescue plan was now set in motion: a prearranged series of telephone calls was made requesting information from local authorities and the general public about the missing aircraft. The following groups became involved at this stage: the radio hams association, Gendarmerie, Border Police, Customs and Excise, State Security Police? the Forestry Department, local fire and rescue services, town halls, the National Electricity Corporation, the local authority equipment suppliers and the Post Office. Mobile patrols were gathered and sent out by all these bodies. Fifteen minutes later, the first information on the possible location of the aircraft came in from a Border Guard patrol, and the Search and Rescue Centre ordered its aircraft aloft to conduct visual and electronic searches, whilst requesting the Spanish aircraft to do the same. Five minutes later there was confirmation that a jet aircraft with one engine trailing smoke was heading into the area already being searched.
An hour and 20 minutes after contact with the aircraft was lost, a French helicopters homing device narrowed the crash area down to a radius of 2 kms in the mountains. Air searches were called off and patrols ordered to concentrate their efforts on this sector. Rescue services were put on standby, as were emergency medical teams, ambulances and hospitals where treatment might be required. An hour and ten minutes later, the first search parties located the crashed aircraft, sealed off the area and proceeded to give first aid, while the operational HQ of the rescue operation was transferred to the crash site. The aircraft had come down, out of control, in a medium mountain area, with 50 dead, 30 seriously injured, 90 people suffering from multiple trauma and five missing. A tragedy-but only on paper.
In fact, Europe 89 was an ambitious simulation exercise, carried out by the French and Spanish authorities under the aegis of the Commissions Directorate-General for Environment, Nuclear Safety and Civil Protection. Everything but the dead and injured was present on site, including a mock-up of a crashed airliner. Aircraft, helicopters, rescue vehicles (250 of them!) and the command and control network functioned perfectly. 450 operational personnel, from mountain rescue teams to medical staff, took part, as did 150 national experts from EEC and EFTA countries, 200 observers, 100 journalists and 200 logistics and traffic control staff, a total of 1087 people over three days, without an accident, without an incident. It was an expensive exercise, but a number of consequences will ensure that it was money well spent.
Firstly, the exercise showed that cooperation was possible: Europe 89 promises a revival of interest in exchanges of information and personal exchanges. This will help with the formulation and planning of disaster control and relief strategies in the future, each partner selecting what is best to come up with coherent and harmonious plans. The same is true of equipment: during the Europe 89 exercise, it was discovered that no less than eight different types of stretcher were being used! If nothing else, a reduction in this sort of diversity would be welcome. Most of all, though, the exercise showed that cooperation in the face of a disaster was possible, that national programmes, though excellent, could always be improved, and that the cooperation was useful and should serve as a model for others contemplating a simulation exercise.
It is no easy matter to make European integration come alive for the man in the street: politicians and economists can make their pronouncements, academics and civil servants produce the paper. But the concept of European Civil Protection is easy to understand. Thanks to Community funding and the stimulation of links and networks, disaster prevention and relief has been, and is being, improved. And the next time a disaster strikes, the victims will be grateful that equipment has been modified and reaction times reduced. A stitch in time saves nine, they say. European Civil Protection wants to do more and save Twelve!