‘Every day here is a new mission’ – EU Civil Protection’s Gerard Guerin

Since his secondment by the Irish Government to the European Commission in 2016, as a leading team member of the humanitarian response programme of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, Modex, and as a Liaison Officer at the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre in Brussels, Gerard Guerin has travelled to many natural disaster sites around Europe and has been involved in the coordination and operational management of numerous large scale multi-national and EU-wide search, rescue and humanitarian exercises.

The European Civil Protection Mechanism’s modulation exercise, Modex, trains and tests the preparedness, resource and response capabilities of search and rescue teams and organisations who respond to major disasters around the world.

In 2018, the European Commission nominated the seconded Carlow Chief Fire Officer as a team leader with UNDAC – United Nations Disaster Assessment Coordination, where he is deployed to some of the most grief-stricken emergency disasters around the world to coordinate the European response on the ground.

Gerard Guerin, ERCC Liaison Officer at Carlow Fire Station, Ireland. Photo: Declan Keogh / Emergency Times

One of Guerin’s most recent deployments since his nomination to UNDAC was to the devastation following a 7.2-magnitude earthquake which hit south-western Haiti on 14th August last which was then followed days later by ‘Tropical Depression Grace’ in the area.

On the 16th of August, Haiti requested assistance through the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) for emergency medical teams (EMT), water and sanitation needs and shelter items. Twelve experts and two Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) Liaison Officers formed an EU Civil Protection Team (EUCPT) and were deployed immediately to Port-au-Prince, arriving there on the 18th of August. The EUCPT is on the ground supporting the authorities and facilitating the coordination of the EU assistance. Working mostly on civil protection aspects in close cooperation with the United Nations Disaster Assessment Coordination team (UNDAC), the team focuses on humanitarian actions. Based on their assessment of the situation on the ground, the team anticipate ongoing civil protection operations are likely to continue well into October.

“Sadly my first impression of Haiti was the visible suffering of the people here, you can see the pain and despair on their faces, it’s actually a very tough thing to acknowledge to one’s self and to try and rationalise.”

On arriving in Haiti, it quickly became clear to Ger Guerin and his team of the physical and visible suffering being experienced by the people devastated by the earthquake and tropical depression. Mr. Guerin says Europeans are privileged in so many ways, and we have so much, but those people have very little. The effects of the earthquake and “Tropical Depression Grace” have exacerbated an already very difficult situation.

EU Photos courtesy EU Civil Protection Communications Office and Gerard Guerin

Guerin described the situation he was and the EUCPT faced described as “a complex emergency” with a “natural disaster” on top, which had created a very challenging operational environment. The political situation and the safety and security situation at the time in Haiti and particularly in Port au Prince was tense and unpredictable and remains so. Mr. Guerin said “From my recollection I cannot think of a more complex or difficult situation where the UCPM has been deployed previously.”

Security implications and situation for the team.
While responding to disasters such as these, there are some safety and indeed security situations to contend with for the EU Civil Protection Team. Natural and man-made disasters often happen in some of the poorest, most vulnerable and not so secure countries in the world. The team must face up to the risks and difficulties of working in such challenging environments however, if they are determined to help people in real need. They must also collectively decide what level of risk they are willing to accept and where do they draw the line.

Ger is pleased that the UCPM was activated for this emergency, and that there was a willingness on behalf of member and participating states to deploy capacities. “I think that the valuable lessons which we will learn from this deployment will help develop and improve the ability of the UCPM to respond more effectively and efficiently to future difficult missions around the world.”

“Every day here is a new mission. One colleague recently joked that your life expectancy in Haiti is 24 hours renewed each morning. It makes me proud however to tell you that despite the many challenges which we face here on a daily basis, the EUCPT are determined to overcome them all and fully support our member / participating state / UCPM capacities to deploy in the earthquake affected regions of Haiti to help people that are seriously in need of our help. It’s the European spirit “failure is not an option”.

This mission utilised the full engagement and cooperation of five key partners which is essential given the particular security situation on the ground: the EU Delegation Haiti, ECHO Field Office Haiti, ECHO Security Cell, ERCC and EUCPT, all meeting regularly and working closely together to ensure the safe conduct and delivery of the mission.

The team receives extremely good intelligence regularly which gives them good situational awareness. Using very well-developed safety and security planning and practices which are in place, which also inspires confidence, the team are disciplined with good security protocols, which means that they have the necessary flexibility to carry out their roles without compromising their own safety or the safety of the team. EUCPT is not exempt or invincible to Covid either, and as a team, they worked closely under workable practical COVID protocols which were also developed by the EUCPT health experts and Tactical Assistance and Support Team (TAST) nurse.

Being deployed to different countries and environments around the world can of course be concerning for any individual. From the various Modex emergency exercises and the numerous disaster missions Ger has attended over the years, he has learned to adapt to many different countries, cultures and conflicts locally, however, there are always be some concerns in the back of his mind. “I always get concerned when I hear gunfire, however I trust in my colleagues, I trust in my training and what I have learned over the years in exercises and on previous missions and as the last thing at night I say a prayer asking God to keep me safe.

Urgent, pressing needs, and how the EU is contributing to meeting them?
Direct engagement with local, regional and national authorities and close collaboration between international responders such as UNDAC allows the EUCPT to carry out its roles in quickly identifying and confirming the most critical needs of some disaster zones on the ground through the ERCC, by informing its participating member states in the established coordination structure and through dialogue with operational partners and stakeholders.

As is the case with most earthquakes, there are urgent and predictable needs, and in Haiti’s case, those needs unfortunately are many and varied.

In this emergency, ‘Help Efficient, Accessible, Low Cost, Timely HealthCare’ (HEALTH), urgent medical intervention of EMT 1’s & 2’s are priority needs followed by Water and Sanitation for Health, and water purification to provide clean drinking water as the public piped water system in the worst affected areas had suffered severe damage. A water purification team of 40 highly motivated firefighters led by Lieutenant Colonel R. Avenel, were qyickloy deployed by France while Norway deployed an Emergency Medical Team type 1 (EMT1) with 36 personnel, which is a hugely impressive 90,000kg and 700 cubic meters of equipment including a heavy base camp and five 4×4 vehicles including three 4×4 ambulance vehicles.

The team are also grateful to Luxembourg for deploying its emergency response module “emergency.lu”, which enhanced the French and Norwegian deployments in addition to supporting the EUCPT and many other responders including National Civil Protection authorities (DGPC). Mr. Guerin also thank and acknowledges Sweden for the hugely important role played by the Technical Assistance Support Team (TAST) who on that occasion were really full integrated into the EUCPT. This “a one Europe one team” approach was really critical given the enormity of the challenges they all faced especially at the beginning of the mission. As previously mentioned, this mission also presented particular security concerns and needs and Ger is adamant to acknowledge the huge contribution of the Dutch naval ship “HOLLAND” based in CURACAO with rotary wing support (NH90) and its 99 crew members, particularly in the early weeks of the mission. The ability to provide intelligence gathering and analysis, safety and security, armed LNO Team on the ground working closely with EUCPT, ability to fly assessment missions safely were all essential elements which allowed EUCPT to conduct operations safely and to understand well the risks environment which was necessary to ensure the safety of the mission. Spain were also acknowleged and thanked for its contribution of water purification plants, some of which were installed, donated and local staff trained which is a long lasting and very worthwhile solution. Ger also offers sincere thanks to the participating member states for their very much needed and hugely appreciated in-kind assistance which arrived on a regular basis.

 

File Pic: EU Modex Exercise. Photo: James Doyle / EmergencyTimes.eu

It is also important to acknowledge that in identifying and meeting these needs, the EUCPT work closely with the United Nations. This is a good example of an integrated mission with UNDAC colleagues. It is a great combination as everyone is playing to their own strengths. “Our complementarity and easy communication help us to save valuable time and reduce duplication of efforts. In addition, we have developed a very good working relationship with the national authorities and other operational partners in the field such as the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) who is strongly supporting the Ministry of health” he said.

How have UCPM training courses and UCPM exercises prepared you for missions like this?
Every day is different in most emergencies, but this was absolutely guaranteed in Haiti. Nothing can be taken for granted and the team continually developed new contingency plans for the contingency plans. Haiti is the place where the emergency kicks your ass if you are not at least two steps ahead all the time, this means that extensive tactical and operational planning never stops. It is now that Ger realises this is what all the training and exercising is all about. “Now I completely understand everything that my good friend Rene Wagemans and many other experienced trainers in the UCPM system taught me over the years. This continuous heightened level of operation, on top of the very close monitoring of the unpredictable political and security situation is both time consuming and exhausting. We deployed here with a 22-person team including 12 EUCPT experts, 2 ERCC liaison Officers and an 8 person TAST. We needed all those experts to function as one single team which they did, to start up and run this mission successfully.”

File Pic: EU Modex Exercise. Photo: Declan Keogh / EmergencyTimes.eu

How does your day start and end? Is every day different or is there a certain routine to your day even in the midst of a disaster situation?
With a significant time difference of 6 hours between Brussels and Haiti, an early morning alarm at 5am starts a new day for Ger. “Brussels always has a head start, Ionut Homeag, Alfonso Lozano and Esther El Haddad, the ERCC Coordinators are not so forgiving to allow me to oversleep, I’m joking of course. I usually start my day by updating the ERCC duty officers and Coordinators, discussing key issues, new developments, emerging priorities and on this particular mission always a high priority is safety and security. The ERCC continues to play a significant role in coordinating and guiding this mission. The ERCC coordinators and the Duty Officer team, work around the clock to support the mission in every way possible, they are really the silent heroes in every mission, and I applaud them.”

“As an ERCC liaison officer, my job here along with my colleague Berengere Tripon is to work very closely with the team leader and deputy team leader providing strategic and tactical advice to support the mission, I’m really the conduit between the ERCC and the EUCP team which I hope binds the whole team together. In addition, I also undertake other functions such as liaising with National Authorities, the EU Delegation, ECHO Field Office, ECHO Security Cell and I am a nominated spokesperson to address International Media on behalf of the mission and ensure the visibility of the mission which is a very important element. Once we reach the EUCPT office in the morning, the day usually takes on a life of its own, in this environment one must have extremely good planning in place to deliver on all elements but also remain open and flexible, as I have learned many times from MODEX exercises “the best laid plans never survive first contact with the enemy”. You reach a certain battle rhythm as a team, everyone find their place and in this particular mission, despite having a large team, such were the challenges and the huge workload, particularly for the first two weeks, that the team really did find its battle rhythm and worked extremely well together.”

“Finally I would like to take this opportunity to thank my family for their love and support, my management and colleagues in the European Commission for their unconditional support which has allowed me to undertake operational missions as an ERCC Liaison Officer over the last six years, it has been my privilege.”

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