Storms are getting ‘stormier’, and wild-fires ‘wilder’

Malta is by no means immune to the sort of natural catastrophes that have engulfed other parts of the Mediterranean. But CPD director PETER PAUL COLEIRO is confident that the country is well-prepared, in the eventuality of a cataclysm 

Civil Protection Department director Peter Paul Coleiro
Civil Protection Department director Peter Paul Coleiro

In recent weeks, Malta’s Civil Protection Department has sent teams to Greece and Libya: both devastated by one of the worst natural catastrophes to ever hit the Mediterranean.  (In Libya alone, the death toll has reached a staggering 20,000). Meanwhile, Malta was spared the effects of Storm Daniel: but we have witnessed our own fair share of extreme weather, in recent years. Am I right in assuming, then, that the purpose of these missions is two-fold: one, to provide assistance to those stricken areas... and two, to provide training for a worst-case scenario, unfolding here in Malta? 

Let me take a step back, before answering. For the past 20 years, the CPD has been participating in various overseas missions, through the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism: which, in turn, falls under the auspices of the United Nations.   

This mechanism brings together the combined experience, and know-how, of various countries around the world – including the 27 EU member states – to offer both training courses, and also exercises in foreign countries.  

But they do not provide any direct training, on how to cope with an individual emergency. If you’re a ‘firefighter’, for instance... they will assume that ‘fighting fires’ is something you already know how to do. Instead, the mechanism offers training on how to interact with different cultures; how to understand, and engage with, the different protocols and procedures; and especially, how to cope with the particular conditions that may arise, in any given country.  

In Greece, for example, the problem was ‘wildfires’, caused by extreme heat. So it’s not enough to simply ‘know how to put out a fire’. You also need to the knowledge of how to handle yourself, in extremely hot conditions.  

The situation in Libya, on the other hand, is considerably more complex. It involves intense flooding, resulting in extremely muddy conditions... with people either buried under layers of mud; or swept out to sea. 

In these circumstances, interventions always require specific expertise. And to make matters worse, in Libya: unlike Greece – which is generally accustomed to ‘extreme heat’ – the sort of flooding we saw in Derna and Benghazi [caused also by the bursting of two dams] is practically unheard of, in that country. So not even the locals have any expertise of their own, on how to cope with such an extreme disaster. 

But this where the UN mechanism comes in. There are other countries, in other parts of the world, that do have the necessary experience, and know-how. This is why the mechanism offers training on three levels, basically. 

One: they provide expertise, in areas where there is none locally. So if a ‘forest fire’ breaks out, in a country which has never experienced that kind of fire before – they will send experts, to instruct the local CPD on the specific dynamics of that kind of emergency.  

Two: they provide equipment, of any kind that may be needed. Malta, in fact, provides this type of assistance very often. We regularly send medical supplies, and other essentials, to disaster-stricken countries. 

Thirdly, there are instances when we also send out our own teams, to assist in rescue missions abroad. And again, this is something we have been doing for the past 20 years, now. Before Greece and Libya, there was the earthquake in Turkey last March; and many other catastrophes. 

Now: whenever Malta participated in these missions, we have always distinguished ourselves. This is recognised, even internationally: Maltese civil protection officers are known to be flexible; we are known to be ‘hands-on,’ and reliable; and we are also known to be genuinely committed, to try to help wherever possible. It is part of our character, as Maltese. 

So despite being a relatively recent institution – the CPD was founded 25 years ago – we now have a history, of consistently providing active assistance. All the same, however: we are still learning, with each intervention.  

When the earthquake struck in Turkey, for example: we already had some experience of dealing with earthquake scenarios - even in Turkey itself – but this time, we also had to contend with situations of extreme cold. Our members therefore had to adapt themselves, very quickly, to working in cold conditions. 

Luckily, however, we enjoy excellent relations with the Canadian civil protection authorities; and they provided us with ‘cold-weather training’... 

On the subject of ‘dealing with the unfamiliar’: Malta’s CPD team in Libya is currently facing a situation of truly cataclysmic proportions. Derna and Benghazi are reportedly awash with the bodies of over 20,000 victims; and so far, team itself has only managed to uncover corpses, not survivors. Surely, a harrowing experience like that could have far-reaching psychological consequences, for the rescuers involved. Does the CPD also provide psychological counselling, for its members? 

What we’re seeing in Libya is certainly very traumatic, for the team. And it was a similar situation in Turkey, too. But you don’t always have to be exposed to such horrifying circumstances, to experience PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).  

As firefighters and rescuers, our members are often faced with harrowing situations, even locally. Sometimes, that includes seeing the body of someone who has been badly burnt, or mutilated, in an accident. Sometimes, it might involve doing your utmost to retrieve someone alive, from a fire... only to watch helplessly, while that person dies in your arms. 

In such cases, you might ask yourself: ‘Did I do enough? Did that person die, because I failed at my job?’ And even if, for argument’s sake, you yourself will have done nothing ‘wrong’... you might still torment yourself endlessly, over questions like: ‘But would it have turned out differently, if I went in from HERE, instead of THERE...?’  

This sort of thing eventually happens to all of us. We’re all being constantly ‘beaten down’, at the end of the day; and none of us is ‘made of iron’, either. And after a while, you start recognising certain symptoms of trauma, even in yourself: for instance, how you suddenly start stammering, whenever you remember certain things... 

So yes: we do provide a programme of psychological counselling, through government’s ESP [Employment Support Programme]. The service is open to the CPD; all members of the fire brigade; and even NGOs and civilians, if the need arises. 

But I can’t tell you much more about it, because the service is provided on a strictly anonymous, voluntary basis. The CPD cannot ‘force’ its members to undergo psychological counselling; and I myself will not even be told about it, when it happens.  

There is a specific officer, who is responsible for handling such cases; and all I get to see is a report in which the individuals concerned would be identified by numbers, not names... 

Coming back to the situation in Libya: Malta, too, was bracing itself for the effects of Storm Daniel; although luckily, it never quite hit us in the end. Nonetheless, we still have to ask ourselves whether, and to what extent, our own country is prepared for a cataclysm of similar proportions: which might, incidentally, also take the form of an earthquake, and/or tsunami... 

First of all, I should point out that – when talking about Malta’s preparedness for a natural disaster – many people often tend to take a ‘linear’ approach. They will say things like: ‘There’s a big storm coming!’ Or: ‘What if there’s an earthquake?’.... but they don’t pause to consider what a ‘big storm’, or an ‘earthquake’, actually means in practice. 

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about: what might look like a ‘big storm’ to you, might not be very much of a concern at all, to us. Because OK: there might be strong winds; or a lot of water, falling over the islands over a period of time. But... how strong is the wind? How much water is falling, and for how long? 

Those are the considerations that really make a difference, as far as we are concerned. Because if, for instance, the amount of rainfall is many times greater, than usual... but it falls over a period of, say, 72 hours... then the damage caused by that storm, will be a lot less than a much lower amount of rain, falling in the space of just two hours.   

It’s the same with earthquakes. An earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale, sounds a lot worse than a quake measuring only 5. But if the Force 5 earthquake has a duration of around two minutes, and the Force 7, only a few seconds... the ‘smaller’ earthquake will cause far more damage, than the ‘bigger’ one. 

Having said this: while we are obviously not scientists ourselves, we have nonetheless been seeing unusual weather patterns, of late. Storms seem to be getting ‘stormier’; and wild fires are getting ‘wilder’. 

But again: the effects of climate change are not always so easy to quantify. Take wild-fires, for example. Contrary to what many people think, the fact that the planet is getting hotter, doesn’t mean that ‘wild-fires’ are suddenly going to start happening spontaneously, all over the place.  

Because, with very few exceptions – involving very specific conditions – ‘heat’, on its own, does not cause fires to break out. In other words: it’s not as though Climate Change is ‘going around with a box of matches, setting valleys on fire’... 

According to a study by the EU – which corresponds to our own experience, here in Malta – 97% of wild-fires are actually caused by human intervention. Sometimes deliberately, as the result of arson; but more often by accident... a carelessly discarded cigarette; or a piece of glass, that magnifies sunlight; or even the silencer of a car, that brushes past roadside vegetation, and ignites the dried grass. 

However, this doesn’t mean that Climate Change is not having any impact, at all. On the contrary, it is making a huge difference... because the heat dries up all the humidity from the surrounding areas, that would otherwise keep those wild-fires from spreading.  

So where, before, we would approach a grassfire by identifying the ‘choke-points’, and drawing the equivalent of ‘a line in the sand’, to stop the fire from spreading beyond that point... today, it is much, much harder to do that.  

Even a tiny gust of wind would be enough to carry the embers far afield... and when those embers land, it is no longer on vegetation that is slightly humid: thus slowing down, or even preventing, the burning process. 

With the sort of weather we’ve been experiencing recently – especially during the heatwave in June – those embers will most likely start separates fires, almost everywhere they land. And the speed at which these fires spread, is incredible... 

On the plus side, however, we have actually seen a reduction in wild-fires, recently. This is largely thanks to the media, which helped us disseminate our message – through a media campaign we started earlier this year – on fire-safety, in general. 

For this reason, we are seeing fewer fires caused by indirect human intervention. There is less glass, and other possibly flammable material, being disposed of by the general public; and overall, there is a lot more awareness today, than there ever was in the past. 

Also, it must be said that – while the nature of these emergencies might be changing – their number has actually remained more or less consistent, over the years.  

Each year, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 incidents, in which the CPD is called on to provide assistance. Now: these could be anything from ‘rescuing a cat stuck in a tree’ – in other words, minor incidents which do not pose serious danger to the public – and also, large-scale emergencies, like storms, floods, and so on.  

Taken together, however: they’re still happening at the same rate of around ‘6-7,000 emergency calls, per year’. At least, for now... 

Nonetheless, the question remains. There is technically nothing preventing a catastrophe of Libya proportions, from happening here in Malta, too. So... is the CPD is a position to respond to that kind of disaster? Do you have enough personnel, for instance? 

 We are in the process of adding new members, even as we speak: there is a recruitment drive currently under way; and another one planned for next year. 

Again, however: a specific answer to your question, depends on the precise nature of the emergency.  Do we have enough manpower, to handle an earthquake which results in, say, ‘50 buildings collapsing’? I would say, probably ‘yes’. But if it’s a massive earthquake, in which over 5,000 buildings collapse... then the answer is clearly going to be ‘no’. 

But just as I started out by talking about the European Civil Protection Mechanism... I’ll end with it, too. If even much larger countries – like Greece, Turkey, and Libya: the last of which, by the way, is not even a full subscriber to the CPD mechanism – have to rely on the assistance of international teams, to cope with disasters... how much more would Malta benefit from the same type of assistance? 

To put that another way: when the earthquake struck Turkey, Malta sent out container-loads of equipment, and medical supplies, along with a team of rescuers. Now: I won’t say that those supplies ‘made no difference at all’ – I am confident that they DID help, at least a little bit – but given the scale of the emergency we were dealing with, at the time... it was a ‘drop in the ocean’, really. 

In a country as small as Malta, however? The same amount of supplies would make all the difference in the world.  And by the same reasoning: if you send 30 teams to Libya, it would certainly have a beneficial impact... but only on a regional level. In Malta, on the other hand: 30 teams would be more than enough, to cover the entire country. 

It’s one of those rare occasions, where ‘being small’ actually works out to our advantage. So yes: with all the assistance provided by the European CPD mechanism, we do have enough personnel, and expertise, to deal with even a large-scale emergency.  

What sort of emergency, however – and how much damage we would have to contend with – that all depends on other factors...