For a place dedicated to handling disasters, the European Commission’s Emergency Response Centre seems remarkably calm. “There is a huge machinery working continuously in the background, but from the outside you hardly notice it,” says Ionut Homeag, who belongs to the pool of staff operating the centre on a daily basis.
The centre’s role is to anticipate and monitor emergency situations around the world and help co-ordinate any response from the 32 states involved in the European Union civil protection mechanism. Both natural and man-made disasters are included. On this morning in June, the machine is busy monitoring flooding in central Europe. “We are in constant contact with the affected countries, we are making projections for the days to come, analysing the discharges on the rivers and the forecast precipitation levels,” Homeag said.
The centre was launched in May, taking up the reins of the civil protection mechanism from the smaller Monitoring and Information Centre. In addition to giving staff additional space and more modern equipment, the change anticipates an increase in activity as the role and resources of the mechanism expand.
Homeag is a national expert, seconded to the Commission from the civil protection authorities in Romania. He started his career as a fire-fighter, following his father into a profession he describes as a family tradition.
In 2005 he moved to the international department of Romania’s General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations. Here he learned about the EU civil protection mechanism and started to follow its training programme for people working on emergency operations with colleagues from other nations.
At the end of 2008 he responded to a Commission call for national experts, starting work in Brussels the following year. He was attracted by the chance to work in a multi-national environment and curious to see how emergencies were handled at the European level. “I also saw it as a continuation of my work as a rescuer, as a civil protection expert in my country. Had it been a purely administrative job, that would not have been interesting.”
Each day starts with information being drawn together about major events and current emergencies, along with forecasts for risk factors, such as the weather. This is compiled into a bulletin that is sent to participating states and other partner organisations.
“This is the first milestone of the day,” Homeag said. “Then usually we go into a co-ordination meeting where we discuss the current situation, assign tasks and discuss the need for reinforcement if the situation requires more colleagues or certain expertise to be called in.” For the rest of the day staff carry out their allotted tasks, meeting again at 5pm to hand over to duty officers who are on call through the night.
This part of the job will change with the creation of the Emergency Response Centre, which will eventually be staffed around the clock. “With emergencies such as the earthquake in Haiti, when the red alert came around midnight, the need for a rapid response is crucial.”
Homeag’s skills are in monitoring systems and civil protection operations, but he is also one of the people available to go into the field, for instance to liaise between the Commission and authorities dealing with an emergency on the ground. His missions have included floods in Poland and Hungary, the Van earthquake in Turkey, the Vasiliko power plant explosion in Cyprus and the repatriation of third country nationals who had fled from Libya to Tunisia in 2011.
This side of the job requires great flexibility. “The situation is so volatile on site, especially in the first hours, that you have to adapt accordingly,” he said. “We have certain roles, such as information management or safety and security, but you need to adapt and be able to do many things at the same time.”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.
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