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Germany's army of THW volunteers

Klaus Ullrich
July 20, 2021

In the current flood disaster, THW teams are at the forefront of search and rescue operations, helping clear debris and bringing water and electricity systems back online. Who are they and what is the THW all about?

A THW crew member carrying a sledgehammer
As Germany mourns after deadly floods devasted swaths of the country, the cleanup operation carries onImage: Harald Tittel/dpa/picture alliance

Cometh a disaster, cometh the band of yellow helmets. From rebuilding bridges to fighting floods and searching for survivors to setting up COVID-19 test centers, THW volunteers have been at the forefront of rescue and relief operations for decades.

Germany's agency for technical relief, THW (which stands for Technisches Hilfswerk), was created on August 22, 1950, by Germany's interior minister at the time, Gustav Heinemann. Its first president was Otto Lummitzsch, an architect and construction engineer, who served in the corps of engineers during World War I.

In 1919, Lummitzsch had already founded THW's precursor organization, the Technische Nothilfe (TN), or Technical Emergency Aid, which emerged from the military corps of engineers. During Hitler's Third Reich, Lummitzsch lost his job as the head of TN in 1934 after he refused to divorce his wife, who was half Jewish.

Since 1953, THW is a federal agency with its own administration within the German Interior Ministry. Originally, the agency's main purpose was civil defense in the event of war. But this has been adjusted over the decades, including now a wide range of disaster relief operations around events such as traffic accidents, industrial disasters, earthquakes and floods.

A THW crew cleaning up the Kyll brooklet with a crane
Germany is trying to come to grips with the vast destruction and loss of life caused by the worst floods in decadesImage: Harald Tittel/dpa/picture alliance

An army of volunteers

Some 80,000 volunteer helpers are members of THW today — among them about 15,000 young people, who spend their free time preparing to help others in need. The membership is organized under 668 local chapters. Only about 1,800 staff are employed full-time at the agency, meaning that 99% are engaged on a voluntary basis.

The organization has also been active in more than 130 disaster relief operations abroad. Its teams were seen in action after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake; in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005; and following storms Lothar and Martin that hit France in 2000, which ended up becoming THW's largest foreign operation to date.

Three THW rescuers with a sniffer dog searching for survivors in the debris of a collapsed building in Beirut, Lebanon.
After the giant blast in the harbor of Beirut in 2020, THW search teams were among the first foreign helpers at the siteImage: picture alliance/dpa

Rebuilding bridges and water systems

THW crews can be assigned to a wide range of tasks. There are specialist teams for search and rescue operations, and for debris clearance, as well as for reestablishing water and electricity systems. THW is also capable of removing oil pollution from water resources.

During the ongoing flood rescue in Germany, some 2,100 THW volunteers from 165 chapters are engaged in disaster relief. However, that's just a 10th of the volunteers who took part in the agency's largest national operation so far, when 24,000 THW volunteers simultaneously fought flooding along the Elbe river in August 2002.

A team of four THW members carrying a motor pump
THW pumping teams have a lot to do, as floodwater is still filling up thousands of basementsImage: Harald Tittel/dpa/picture alliance

State-of-the-art equipment

THW's local chapters include specialized teams, or so-called technical platoons, which are equipped with modern machinery to support their rescue efforts.

In the town of Euskirchen, for example, the agency's crews were battling rising waters at the Steinbach dam with huge rotary pumps that are able to move 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of water per minute — equivalent to about a bathtub full of water every two seconds.

As the dam was nevertheless threatening to be breached, THW was able to deploy a monster pump, of which there are only 14 in Germany, which was able to move a staggering 25,000 liters per minute out of the swelling lake.

According to media reports, five THW pumping crews were involved in the Steinbach dam rescue, reducing water in the lake at a rate of 70,000 liters per minute, and eventually saving all of the downstream communities from inundation.

How to become a member

As dramatic as THW's operations often are, becoming a member of the volunteer organization is less so. Anyone can join, no matter their profession. While the entry age for junior teams is 10 years, members must be 17 years old to enter active service on senior teams.   

All volunteers undergo technical training, where they learn how to use chain saws, cutters and grinders. Some basics of materials science are also taught, as well as first-aid and rescue techniques. The THW provides equipment and protective gear for free. In addition, the state-funded agency reimburses travel costs and lost wages during operations and covers insurance costs for its members.

But the true reward for volunteers might just be that they have been able to help others.

Germany floods

This article was adapted from German.