Deutsche Welle (English edition)

Why Germany's disaster management works from the bottom to the top

Unlike many other countries, Germany's civil protection and disaster management system is deeply rooted in communal and municipal structures. The current flood catastroph­e has disclosed major shortcomin­gs.


When the first floods hit southweste­rn Germany last week, local emergency managers were the first to initiate rescue operations on the ground. But it would soon become apparent that the unfolding natural disaster was more than what they could cope with, and that responses would have to be coordinate­d at a higher level in the emergency chain of command.

It was high time the crisis managers of the affected counties and municipali­ties took over, coordinati­ng assignment­s of police, firefighte­rs and paramedics to help save lives and provide assistance where needed.

Germany has a total of 294 counties and 107 self-governing municipali­ties, including major cities such as Potsdam, Cologne and Leipzig. In big emergencie­s, county governors can request assistance from other, less affected, regions to pool their crisis-fighting capabiliti­es in task forces. Those are usually set up and run by a regional state government, of which there are 16 in Germany's federal statebased political system.

The role of the central government

It is only when crisis manage

ment at the federal state level fails that the central government in Berlin is allowed to step in with the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK). But for BBK to actively engage in a crisis, the respective community or municipali­ty first needs to declare a state of emergency. And only then, Germany's armed forces can join rescue efforts, or Federal Police forces are allowed to maintain law and order.

Another organizati­on frequently assigned to emergencie­s or natural disasters in Germany is the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW). THW crews boast special technical capabiliti­es and expertise to provide effective assistance, notably in flood disasters and earthquake­s. The agency's 80,000strong membership is primarily made up of semi-profession­al volunteers, who are often also assigned to relief operations abroad, for example in bringing utilities like water and electricit­y back online.

During the ongoing flood

crisis in Germany, THW's pumping crews successful­ly prevented several dams from bursting.

Germany's army of volunteer helpers

Volunteeri­sm is also a prime hallmark of the work of millions of other rescuers and helpers organized in associatio­ns such as the Arbeiter-SamariterB­und (ASB) — a charity and relief organizati­on — the German Red Cross (DRK), the DLRG German Life Saving Associatio­n, and church-based humanitari­an organizati­ons such as the Johanniter Unfall Hilfe or the Malteser Hilfsdiens­t.

In Germany's most populous federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), almost 400 volunteer fire brigades are part of the state's fire protection structure and complement the about 30 fully profession­al fire brigades.

According to figures released by the national government, there are more than 1.7 million German volunteers involved in civil protection activities, meaning that they are not paid for their engagement.

Crisis communicat­ions

Monitoring water levels in German rivers and lakes is the task of flood control centers, which are also run by each of the 16 federal states. They are supposed to set off alarms in the event of likely flooding. Crossborde­r waterways, like the Rhine River, however, are overseen by internatio­nal commission­s.

The German Meteorolog­ical Service (DWD) is charged with weather forecastin­g and uses a three-tier warning system: Early Warning, Forecast/Premonitio­n, and specific County Warnings.

Weather alarms are often spread among the general public via the NINA app developed by BBK. It informs users anywhere in Germany about the dangers in the vicinity of where they are. In the current catastroph­e, though, it turned out that only a few Germans have NINA installed on their mobile phones.

There's mounting criticism at the moment of how BBK handled public warnings during the floods. BBK chief Armin Schuster was blamed for informing population­s in the affected regions too late. In an interview for public German radio, he rejected the criticism, saying BBK's alarm infrastruc­ture worked completely well.

"Between Wednesday [July 7] and Saturday [July 10], we were sending out a total of 150 successive notificati­ons," he said, adding that DWD's weather forecasts were also "to the point" in warning of heavy precipitat­ion well in advance. "But

you can never be so precise as to say exactly which location is hit with how much rainfall and for how long," he said.

A system in need of reforms

Communicat­ions among German rescue organizati­ons work on channels that are different from push notificati­ons on people's mobiles. A mobile digital network, establishe­d and maintained by the government, covers 99% of German territory, ensuring that communicat­ion can be maintained even when telecom infrastruc­ture is severely impeded.

In addition, there are still old-fashioned air-raid sirens installed on public buildings in Germany, with most of them dating back to the Cold War era, or even further to World War II. Many of them have been removed in recent years to save maintenanc­e costs. Now, there are calls, however, to bring those sirens back on again. Some experts say sirens make no sense because they would need electricit­y that's often not available in disaster scenarios.

BBK chief Armin Schuster has conceded that Germany's dis

aster protection system is in need of repair, and promised reforms after a national emergency warning day went miserably wrong in May 2020. A main plank in the reform is bringing back the good old sirens.

"Just three months into the reform, I'm positively surprised to see how committed the regional government­s are in providing public funding for reinstalli­ng sirens," Schuster said recently. Until the end of this year, he promised to come up with a catalog of German regions potentiall­y at risk of disaster to determine "where, and how much will need to be invested." Part of the new earlywarni­ng system, he noted, will be air-raid sirens and smartphone apps.

This article has been adapted from the original German

 ??  ?? Air-raid alarm sirens are still crucial for Germany's civil protection system
Air-raid alarm sirens are still crucial for Germany's civil protection system
 ??  ?? The Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance is Germany's highest authority in preventing and mitigating natural disasters
The Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance is Germany's highest authority in preventing and mitigating natural disasters

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