The European Union emergency management center will now be on duty 24/7. Recent forest fires in the Balkan states show how important this central authority is.
The headquarters seems unimpressive. It is just a single room, approximately 50 meters square with glass walls, surrounded by offices in one of the many EU buildings in Brussels' European quarter. Electronic maps and television screens glow along the wall, while seven employees sit at their computers. That's a little more than usual, because right now the south of Europe is ablaze with forest fires.
The emergency management center just received a request for help from Bosnia-Herzegovina because the country can't deal with the forest fires by itself. Due to intervention of the EU crisis management, Bosnia's neighboring country Croatia sent two firefighting planes. Images from their operation can be seen on one of the screens.
Monitoring and responding to emergencies
According to Peter Billing, vice president of the Emergency Response Center, the center has three main tasks. First, employees monitor natural phenomena worldwide in order to spot possible threats like forest fires, flooding or earthquakes as soon as possible. Technological disasters are part of this as well. Second, the center serves as a clearinghouse, collecting and exchanging information about disasters and crises among member states to help them launch the best countermeasures. And last but not least, the center coordinates operations in order to prevent member states from duplicating efforts on the same incident.
However, member states still have the last word. The Brussels center does not spring into action with every natural disaster or large accident - an affected state must first be overwhelmed, and this threshold can vary drastically from state to state. The center in Brussels coordinates approximately 30 operations a year.
Every minute counts
The EU actually has more than 10 years of experience fighting forest fires. But with the establishment of the emergency center in May 2013, this work has clearly been upgraded - the center is always at the ready, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But the current standby system of two employees on call will be changed.
Since every minute counts when it comes to fighting disasters, there will be "a presence of at least two colleagues around the clock, 365 days a year" from October 1 onwards, said Billing.
He further explained that office employees can reach the national emergency management headquarters of each of the 32 member states within seconds. "If you pick up the phone, you can press a button and you will be directly connected to Finland or France. It's all pre-programmed in order to allow a very quick and efficient reaction in an emergency situation.”
Not only for member states
But hold on, 32 member states? Doesn't the EU only have 28 members since Croatia recently joined? Yes, but Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and the former Yugoslav autonomous republic, Macedonia, all joined the system as well.
And its operations are far from being restricted only to Europe. Every country in the world can request support from the center. In fact, the majority of operations take place outside of the European Union.
Room for improvement
However, there are still some issues with the system. According to Billing, one of its weaknesses is the fact that it is financed through voluntary donations from member states, depending on each situation. "This can lead to problems because we can never foresee if we are able to actually grant a request for help," Billing said. For instance, with the recent forest fires in Bosnia, the center was unable to schedule the two Croatian firefighting planes from the get-go.
The emergency center has suggested that the states generate a pool of disaster relief forces, experts and equipment, which the center in Brussels can then draw from at any time. This would also save valuable time, the center argues.
Altogether, approximately 40 people work at the emergency center in Brussels. They come from diverse European countries in order to cover different languages and regional peculiarities. Some of the employees are officials from the EU Commission; others are sent by individual states for a specific time period.
The employees also have different professional backgrounds. There are seismologists, geographers and geologists; but also social scientists - or political scientists, such as Billing. For him, it's most important that they build a broad network with contacts in their home countries.
Billing said the work is sometimes exhausting, but that it can also be satisfying. "To be called out of bed at three in the morning is really not that fun. But if you have the feeling that you can help victims of disasters, that you can help save lives and protect cultural treasures, then I think it is a very fulfilling occupation."