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Inside the EU’s 24/7 Disaster Watch

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26 February 2016

Coordination between the 28 member states of the EU can take time. But what happens when every hour’s delay costs lives? When it comes to natural and man-made emergencies, the EU response begins before a disaster strikes, coordinated by a 21-strong team at the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) on Rue de la Loi, Brussels.

Set up in May 2013 under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, the Centre operates 24 hours a day and can deal simultaneously with emergencies in different time zones - an improvement on its predecessor, the Monitoring and Information Centre. Clocks around the three main operational rooms display the local time in countries facing emergencies, helping the Centre’s staff to coordinate with national crisis centres, relevant Commission services and teams on the ground via video conference.

Any country around the world can request assistance from the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, which has monitored over 300 disasters since 2001 and responded to over 200 requests for assistance. Dedicated international organisations, such as the UN or Red Cross, can also request that the Mechanism be activated.

The Centre then matches calls for assistance with resources pooled by the EU, its member states and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Montenegro, Norway and Serbia. These can include basic relief items such as blankets and sandbags, equipment such as water purification systems and generators, or specialised intervention capacities such as field hospitals, search and rescue teams, fire-fighting helicopters and relief workers.

As well as responding to emergencies, the Centre aims to reduce their severity ahead of time through various monitoring and prevention strategies. “It’s important to be ahead of the curve,” said Ionut-Lucian Homeag, member of the ERCC. “It’s looking at what might happen, and trying to be there as quickly as possible.”

Staff monitor satellite feeds displaying atmospheric pressure systems, ground maps and flood and forest fire indicators, and pull the information together to understand which countries have a heightened risk of emergencies. A dedicated team prepares plans for the deployment of experts and equipment, ready for a request, while an analytical group works with the Italian-based Joint Research Centre to produce the maps needed.

“You cannot predict exactly what is going to happen,” said Juan Alfonso Lozano Basanta, Seconded National Expert from Spain. “But we can foresee what is the trajectory of a typhoon and then also its strength and imagine what can happen if [it makes] landfall in a populated area. […] We can already talk to our experts and they can be deployed immediately before the disaster happens to facilitate the response.”

This working method meant that when cyclone Haiyan hit the Philipines in 2013, the first planes with assistance were ready to take off within hours of an official request for assistance being made. Sweden sent a base camp with communication equipment; Germany needs-assessment experts; Belgium a medical team and water purification unit; and the UK and France provided shelter kits.

The ERCC coordinates the response of the Member states, pooling shipments to lower transport costs, and keeps track of contributions from international organisations to ensure that EU assistance fills the gaps.

“Our actions should always complement, not reinvent,” said Homeag. “It’s our modus operandi that wherever we go, we put together an expert team or EU civil protection team, whose role is to act as the oil in the machine, linking with the affected country, regional actors, the UN and others, and most importantly linking with the assistance from the EU member states. It can be facilitating arrival and delivery, customs, logistics, defining needs, as well as the modules [specialised teams, for example providing] search and rescue, water purification, to make sure all those assets are working in a coordinated way, and make the best impact when it comes to alleviating suffering and protecting life.”

Although no two emergencies are the same, the Centre puts emphasis on sharing best practices and taking lessons from one emergency to the next. Staffed by experts from civil protection and emergency response units across the EU, the Centre benefits from the knowledge, experience and contacts they bring.

“We have a lessons learnt programme, addressing key issues after exercises, trainings, response missions, deployment,” said Homeag. “There are metrics with key lessons identified and then those lessons are fed into decision processes, procedures, and new legislation proposals.”

One principle which has come out of the Centre’s experience is the importance of linking up with development projects. These can build resilience to natural hazards through disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures, and can enable a swift response after sudden events such as floods or fires.

The importance of identifying a country’s logistical weak points in advance was demonstrated by the devastating earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. “The airport in Kathmandu could only take a few planes at the same time to offload the required relief teams,” said Homeag. “In a few hours the airport was clogged with airplanes delivering in good faith and in good reasoning the assistance, but it was not enough, and that was the main bottleneck reaching the country. Everybody was in Kathmandu, but the most affected areas were outside Kathmandu. Getting trucks and getting out of Kathmandu took a few days.”

“Good dialogue with the national authorities is key when a concerted action between the international community and a national authority is required,” said Homeag. “Having those [at-risk] nations in a programme that enables them to have disaster risk reduction as priority, to look at training and prevention programmes, is key.”

The European Commission supports DRR in its humanitarian aid and development cooperation, and was a key contributor to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Signed last year in Sendai, Japan, it sets out priorities including increasing the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020, and making multi-hazard early warning systems more widely available.

The DIPECHO programme run by the European Commission's Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection addresses these issues, developing early warning systems, building safe shelters and training civilians in how to respond during emergencies. Over 60% of projects funded by DG ECHO include DRR elements.

DEVCO, the Commission’s Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development, also incorporates DRR in its external assistance. Together with ECHO and EU Member States, it supports the integration of DRR in development cooperation and programmes to build resilience at different levels in a range of countries and regions. The EU Action Plan for Resilience in crisis prone countries adopted in June 2013 calls for risk-informed programming and strengthened coordination for more effective action on building resilience.


One recent example is the ‘Building capacities for increased public investment in integrated climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction’ project, which was run by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) from 2012-15 with a €7 million contribution from the EU. The project helped 40 countries build National Disaster Loss databases for disaster loss accounting; 30 countries received capacity building in probabilistic risk assessment; and 15-20 countries received capacity building on introducing disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation into Public Investment. Click here for more information.

A further, global scheme is the ACP-EU Natural Disaster Risk Reduction (ACP-EU NDRR) Programme. Established in 2011, it is funded by the EU and managed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). It promotes integration of disaster risk management into the global development agenda. Since 2008, the EU has contributed €111 million to GFDRR, of which €80 million is dedicated to improving climate and disaster resilience in ACP countries through the ACP–EU NDRR Programme. Read more on: ACP community-driven actions; ACP Compendium of Risk Knowledge ; EU’s support for DRR

In addition, the EU-funded Global Climate Change Alliance Plus (GCCA+) combats climate change in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable places, notably Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States. It will allocate around €350 million from 2014-2020 to address adaptation and mitigation to climate change, disaster risk reduction and reducing emissions from deforestation and land degradation. Find out more at

With natural hazards increasing in frequency and intensity, closer collaboration between development actors, humanitarian agencies and national governments is essential to make sure resources are used effectively during emergencies, and even more importantly, before they unfold. As well as being up to seven times more cost effective, better collaboration on preventive measures would save homes, livelihoods and thousands of lives. 



Further reading

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Jozias Blok from DEVCO and Ionut-Lucian Homeag from ECHO, with support from the 
Coordination Team.


This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

Teaser image credit: EU/ECHO/Ezequiel Scagnetti

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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