Danube Watch 2/2018 - Volunteers for People in Distress – the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW)

Volunteers for People in Distress – the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW)

The THW (Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk) is a governmental civil protection organisation controlled by the German Federal Government. 99% of its almost 80,000 members are volunteers. As the cornerstone of civil protection in Germany, it also provides support and assistance in the case of natural disasters and accidents throughout the rest of the world. To date it has been deployed in more than 130 countries, with voluntary experts committing themselves to more than one million hours per year to providing worldwide civil protection.

THW, in its current form, was founded in 1950, shortly after the end of WWII. Its main original purpose was civil defence in the event of war, but this has changed over the decades and today it provides assistance and relief for a wide spectrum of disasters, not only in Germany but throughout the world. THW also supports other governmental and non-governmental organisations and other statutory authorities, including fire brigades and police forces.

Activities range from local accidents through to industrial disasters, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and Tsunamis. Deployments in recent years include the floods in Germany in 2013, the storm in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2014, and the floods in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014. Major THW operations in 2015 included assistance in Nepal after the earthquakes and its long-term contribution to the programme of assistance for refugees in Germany.

Cooperation with the European Union
The aim of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism is to coordinate the operations of civil protection services during large-scale disasters and serious emergencies. Such emergencies can be natural disasters or technological catastrophes, terrorist acts or marine pollution, occurring both within and outside the European Union.

The Mechanism was established in 2001 and further developed in 2007. THW has been a major cooperation partner for this vital disaster management instrument since the very beginning, providing assistance over a wide range of activities.

A number of experts and units from THW are registered for operations abroad with the European Commission and can, in the event of a disaster, be requested by the EU. Acting on behalf of the Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid of the European Commission (ECHO), THW has also repeatedly implemented projects in countries outside the EU; for example, in regions of Indonesia destroyed by the Tsunami in 2004, and in Lebanon in 2006. 

THW Rapid-Deployment-Units, known as “modules” are assembled according to EU-standards and facilitate the coordination of international operational units. THW also has designated experts and units that are capable of operating within the framework of the Mechanism. In recent years, it has assumed an important role in the training of EU-experts for organised large-scale EU-exercises (e.g. EULUX 2007, ALBIS 2008) and has continuously contributed to the further development and organisation of European cooperation in the field of civil protection.

THW People
There are approximately 80,000 active unpaid volunteers in the THW who are motivated by their conviction to help people in need. This commitment to the THW offers a sense of belonging to a community, a challenging hobby and a source of new experiences and challenges. Men and women from all walks of life are active within the THW, both young and old, regardless of their nationality, and with both technical and non-technical backgrounds. In fact, anyone who wants to join THW can.

THW Local Sections
There are many local sections of the THW in cities and rural districts across Germany, each possessing its own premises and the necessary technical equipment. THW members work together to structure the operation of their local section, where they receive their basic technical training and regularly training exercises for their operations. They are a closely-knit community who rely on one another. Members of these local sections meet regularly on weekday evenings and at weekends, thereby making it possible to combine their voluntary commitment to THW with their jobs.

Children and young people are also welcome at THW. Each local section has at least one youth group where children and young people from the age of six to seventeen are introduced to civil protection. This includes technical training and leisure-time activities, and also offers the opportunity to take part in international exchange programmes with partner countries.

The hub of the EU Mechanism is the Monitoring and Information Center (MIC), which is attached to the European Commission Environment Directorate-General. Requests for help from countries in distress arrive at the center and are passed on to the participating states. Further elements of the Mechanism are the “Joint Information and Communication System” (CECIS), a database of the operational teams, experts, “modules” and the “Technical Assistance Support Teams” (TAST). A database with medical resources, an education programme, as well as tools for the deployment of search and coordination teams is also available.

Training at THW
THW volunteers are trained to deal with a wide range of situations. Many THW training courses are certified externally and most skills acquired are also useful for their professional or leisure-time activities. Members benefit from basic technical training courses, with a wide range of specialisations available, including skills in the fields of search and rescue, electricity and drinking water supply, logistics and command and communication. The range of training also includes non-technical qualifications for administrative work, as well as for catering, press and PR activities. Training, equipment and any necessary protective clothing are provided by the THW free of charge, and there is no membership fee.

Altogether, 31 states take part in the EU Mechanism: the member states of the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The Mechanism dates back to from a decision of the European Council on 23 October 2001. On 8 November 2007, it was replaced by an amendment. It is accompanied by a financial instrument (according to a decision of the Council of 5 March 2007), which finances different projects in the field of disaster management, such as training, large-scale exercises and the deployment of expert teams.

THW Operations
When a local section is summoned to an operation, an alert is sent out to its members. Emergencies are unpredictable and provisions are therefore made with the members’ employers in case they are required during normal working hours. Activities also take place in the evenings and at weekends. German law ensures that THW operatives do not suffer any professional disadvantages due to their voluntary commitments. They are also insured and continue to receive their salaries (which are refunded to the employer by the THW), even during extended periods of service.

Cooperation at a local level
THW activities are not just restricted to regional and national catastrophes. This year, the regional group in Neuburg an der Donau in Bavaria took part in the Danube Day celebrations. Volunteers collected rubbish from riverbanks along the Danube and two islands. The THW and the Red Cross provided staff to support the activities and also boats to take the volunteers to the riverbanks and islands and transport all the rubbish collected.

It is especially important for local water administration agencies to be able to call on the THW, even in times when there is no crisis. Such activities are a golden opportunity for local communities to get to know THW members and the services and cooperation that they are able to offer.

Thore Gauda coordinates the communication and public relation work in the field of water and soil protection for the Bavarian State Ministry of Environment and Consumer Protection. He is also a member of the Public Participation Expert Group of the ICPDR.

Next: Danube Watch 2/2018 - Pure Water for Generations – an interview with Pascal Roesler

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