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Achilles's heel 3: Vertical and horizontal segmentation in local disaster management

Since all disasters start locally, authorities on this level have a specific responsibility within the disaster management system. As a matter of subsidiarity, most of the operational disaster management rights and obligations are delegated to the lowest administra tive level, often directly to the fire brigades. With more than 1.3 million members (cf. Deutscher Feuerwehr Verband 2012), the firefighters are the backbone of the German local relief system, conjointly with medical rescue organizations and the local forces and specialized task forces of the Federal [Technical] Relief Agency (Technisches Hilfswerk, THW). Supervision, however, remains on a superordinate level, and also the co-ordination of larger emergencies is carried out by a district office or a regional council in case of a disaster. For this reason, like in the relationship between the laender and the Bund, local governance settings are split horizontally and vertically, too.

The first segmentation issue in local disaster management governance we now turn to concerns the co-ordination of first responders. Basically, Germany is split into a Northern half where fire brigade co-ordination centers were used also to co-ordinate medical emergency relief (and sometimes provided it themselves), while in the Southern half medical relief agencies, especially the Red Cross, had co-ordination centers of their own. As of today, in most of the laender medical rescue and fire service control are currently being merged into joint co-ordination centers, initiated and, because of missing regulation, mostly informally governed by superior administrative levels. This process is plagued by reservations and opposition on the part of both types of local relief organizations, which drawing on Hall, we can distinguish three types of causes for. Firstly, according to the historical institutionalism argument organizations “[…] tend to have a view of institutional development that emphasizes path dependence […]” (Hall 1996, p. 938). Secondly, in line with rational choice arguments (cf. e.g. Hall 1996, pp. 942–946), we argue that the independent relief agencies worry about losing organizational power, e.g. income. And, thirdly, with regard to the sociological institutionalism argument (cf. Hall 1996, pp. 946– 950), cultural obstacles exist between the white and the red forces, as our experts noted, too. Yet nevertheless, the integration of co-ordination centers so far has had at least one additional positive impact on the disaster management system apart from simply saving costs: it brought and it continues to bring about a mutual understanding among the relief organizations regarding both operational detail and local governance structures.

Regarding vertical and horizontal segmentation within the local disaster management governance setting, a reliable network between first responders, municipal administrations, and private businesses running critical infrastructures is necessary for both effective preparation and response. For example, local authorities need to bundle information about existing community risks (like chemical industry production or transports of hazardous materials), response capabilities etc. on a comprehensive and regular basis in order to be able to link up the local level with higher echelons. Currently, this process relies on the good will of all relevant public and especially private actors who are often only bound by self-obligations and is caused by varying, and more or less reliable, informal relationships among them. A good example we can highlight is the collaboration between public fire brigades and private factory fire brigades which often solely depends on personal networks of variable reliability. Furthermore, many firms have in recent years outsourced their factory fire brigades.24 Not only are their members now paid significantly less (in extreme cases, the security services industry's minimum wage instead of union ized chemical workers' much more generous wages), turnover is also much higher, and knowledge of production plants as well as training standards are lower. In sum, this is quite unlikely to have improved response quality (among other things because it undermines the said informal networks). On the part of public local administrations, moreover, currently, disaster management is usually just another add-on task. Existing staff is much more strongly involved in other daily business, so there is no room for disaster management activities anymore, and the strained communal budget situation further exacerbates this vulnerability.25

An issue at the nexus between local public-private co-ordination and the relationship between the local and higher levels is the decision on the distribution within the laender of 'white' Bevoelkerungsschutz vehicles, i.e. ones manned by private medical relief organizations, financed by the Bund. The federal level had cut its contributions by 50 %. Rhineland-Palatine handed over the task of bargaining over a sectoral and regional balance to a working group of five organizations called HIK (Arbeitsgruppe der Hilfsorganisationen im Katastrophenschutz), and according to the ministerial expert responsible for the program they did so in a much more consensual and efficient manner than land politicians with their strong local ties or the Ministry lobbied by them could have done, which shows positive outcomes of this informal governance framework. After the HIK had moreover designed the land concept for vaccinations of medical personnel in the wake of the EHEC pandemia quite smoothly, Rhineland-Palatine according to the same expert changed its government outlook to a governance variant: “We changed our philosophy completely. Private relief organizations are not mere auxiliary agents for us anymore, but important partners. And this partnership has proven its worth” (authors' translation). In terms of operational capacities, local disaster management planning for certain scenarios relies on military back-up and a matching of existing military and non-military resources, which is often managed in informal networks among the local administration staff and the local representatives of the Federal Armed Forces. Thus, the latter are allowed to use existing district offices for their internal meetings, as an expert mentioned.

A formal Bevoelkerungsschutz network on the local and regional level across state boundaries was created after long years of lobbying from the German side regarding the French Commission locale d' information et de surveillance (CLIS) that is in charge of the operational licence of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant. By now, the regional district president (Regierungspraesident) of Freiburg is a regular member of this body. (Legally, this is based on bilateral treaties and has nothing to do with EU integration.) Alas, the actual impact of this membership is rather limited so far similar trilateral. None theless, equivalent trilateral cross-border arrangements are being planned regarding the Swiss nuclear power plants along the river Rhine.

The THW is particularly interesting in terms of the federal-local interface. Many observers and practitioners (both groups including some of the experts we interviewed) lament insufficient formalization of these contacts, especially regarding the clearing system for the inclusion of THW support in local activities. Among other details, there is insufficient legal clarity as to the attribution of costs that arise once a local crisis management group asks for THW task force support. At the height of the recent looding of the river Elbe, the finance minister of the Eastern land Sachsen-Anhalt affirmed that neither his land nor its municipalities were able to pay for the THW (as well as Bundeswehr) support they received at this very moment. In the future, we assume a growing need for THW task force activities (because of the withdrawal of military capacities from many regions due to Bundeswehr downsizing as well as some technically more sophisticated challenges26), thus this problem will not resolve itself any time soon without clearer legal or negotiated regulation.

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