During my internship at New York University’s Department of Public Safety, I had an opportunity to learn about emergency management and preparedness. An interesting fact I came across while looking at how individual countries organize themselves in the field of crisis management, is that Austria, a comparably small country with a population of 8 million, has assisted other countries in every major crisis since 2003. I was curious how this impressive track record was made possible.
My enquiry to the Austrian government was kindly answered with an invitation from Dr. Roman Bayer, who I met in Vienna. Dr. Bayer works for the Federal Ministry of the Interior of the Government of the Republic of Austria.
About Dr. Bayer:
- He is a desk officer in the department SKKM – Staatliches Krisen- und Katastrophenmanagement und Koordination Zivile Sicherheit (Department of Crisis & Disaster Management and Civil Contingency Coordination). The department is embedded in the Federal Ministry of the Interior.
- This department is an Austrian key contact for international cooperation in the context of crisis and disaster management.
- He obtained a Master of Disaster Management degree from the University of Copenhagen, after working in the bio-chemical field for several years.
- He studied biology and has a doctorate in genetics from the University of Vienna.
Our conversation will be posted in two parts. Part 1 (below) will explain how Austria organizes domestic crisis and disaster management. Part 2 (to be posted in a couple of weeks) will discuss Austria’s amazing track record in international crisis management.
Please note that the opinions and views expressed in this interview are Dr. Bayer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the SKKM, the Federal Ministry of the Interior, or the Austrian government.
Q: Dr. Bayer, thank you so much for taking the time to meet me. To start, would you mind telling me a little about your background?
Dr. Bayer: I am a biologist and did my doctorate in genetics. I worked in bio-chemistry but I came from a different field. I didn’t want to work in a lab. Rather, I always wanted to help people. I therefore decided to study disaster management and, about three and a half years ago, I began working for the Department of Crisis and Disaster Management. I also studied disaster management in Copenhagen, Denmark. Now everything has come together for me: I can use both my scientific knowledge and my experience in microbiology, for instance when it comes to water and sanitation. What I love about disaster management is that you can come at it from any angle and add your expertise.
Q: The SKKM is responsible for the coordination of national and international crisis and disaster management for the Republic of Austria. Could you please elaborate on how the SKKM coordinates and cooperates with other federal, state, and international organizations?
Dr. Bayer: It is helpful to first explain the system we have in order to help you understand what we do in our department. SKKM (Staatliches Krisen- und Katastrophenschutzmanagement) refers to the federal crisis and disaster management and our SKKM department is responsible for the coordination of Austria’s national and international disaster management-related affairs.
In Austria, several ministries have roles to play in this space, including the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which is next door), and the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection. All of these are separate from and independent of each other. Our Bundesministeriengesetz, which is the law that regulates what each ministry does, outlines that the Ministry of Interior is responsible for the coordination of disaster management in Austria, both nationally and internationally. Note how it only tasks us with coordination. We don’t have directing power, meaning we could not for example command a fire brigade in the Austrian province of Styria. What we do is coordinate Austria’s aid and relief efforts.
In a crisis situation and even before that – in order to discuss about prevention and preparedness measures –, we try to bring everyone together, including our contacts at other ministries, and other stakeholders, such as the representatives of the Bundesländer (federal provinces), rescue organizations, NGOs, and everybody else who plays a part in Austria in terms of disaster management.
When it comes to disaster management every country is different. And every country has its own approach. Some countries, for example Russia, even have a separate Ministry of Disaster Management. In Austria, we don’t have that.
Our Department is split into four units, one for national and one for international matters, a civil protection school and a 24/7 Operations and Coordination Center (EKC, which stands for Einsatz- und Koordinationscenter). As a member of the European Union, we naturally have strong ties with our EU counterparts. Part of my personal duty is being the contact person for the United Nations, so when it comes to disaster management, I work closely with the UN and attend meetings for example in Geneva. It’s a very interesting job!
We also have bilateral agreements with our neighboring countries, to facilitate disaster relief missions. Because even between neighboring countries there might for example be customs issues that need to be cleared ideally upfront before a disaster occurs. With such bilateral agreements, we have set in place a framework that allows us to expedite our efforts. This has been growing over the last decades – and it works very well.
Examples for issues that might arise during disaster relief operations when people from different countries are involved include that a doctor from one country, for example, may not be legally allowed to treat patients in a different country. Or you may have rescue dogs who need to take certain vaccinations in order to be allowed to be taken into another country.
More problematic is coordinating disaster relief in faraway countries, in South East Asia or South America, for example. In such locations, the delivery of urgently needed aid supplies can get stuck at the airport even for months for example when the required paperwork is not complete. Remember the earthquake in Nepal? I believe some aid containers might still be stuck at the airport now. They have never been delivered.
You’d never think that a missing signature or document could have such an impact on disaster mitigation work.
Q: Who is responsible for public health planning and response in Austria? How do you collaborate on health-related issues with the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection?
Dr. Bayer: In Austria, it is really important to understand that, depending on the nature of the incident, different agencies and organizations will be responsible and have a legal mandate to act. One important point I want to stress is that there is no simple answer. When it comes to crisis planning, it is a broad field.
For public health it is quite clear: previously, it was the Ministry of Health that was responsible at the federal level. Now, under our new Government, it is the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection that has that mandate. However, Austria is a federal state, consisting of provinces, which adds an additional layer of complexity in the interaction. The head of the provinces, the Landeshauptmann or Landeshauptfrau (state governor), is the main person in charge of disaster management at the provincial level. He or she decides who does what. But if it is a health issue, the competencies shift to the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection. Similarly, if there is a nuclear incident, responsibility shifts and falls under the Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism, which is in charge of environmental as well as radiological issues.
Q: What would the reporting structures for an incident or a pandemic look like? In Germany, which is also federally structured, there are strict reporting lines from the provinces to the states and then to the federal government. Is the Austrian structure similar?
Dr. Bayer: Yes, it is very similar. We have very clear reporting structures. In our Department, there is a national sub-unit, an international sub-unit, and the so-called EKC, which stands for Einsatz- und Koordinationscenter, a 24/7 command and coordination unit. We have nine provinces and every province has two provincial alarm centers, one for police and one for non-police affairs. They are staffed 24/7 and are monitoring the general safety and security-related situation in Austria (for instance extreme weather events, avalanches, flooding, police-related incidents) and they report to us.
We also receive situation reports from the EU or the UN on global disasters. Our Department is a main point of international contact and, from here, we are in charge of disseminating information that we receive from our international partners within Austria. We know the right person to contact for every issue.
We also have measuring stations to monitor radiological isotopes. These stations are distributed evenly all over Austria and we immediately get an alert if there is an increase in radioactivity. We would then get in contact with the Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism, who is in charge of environmental as well as radiological matters, and all other stakeholders concerned. If other countries in or outside of the EU measure something, they would alert us, too. There is a constant network of radiological alerts.
Q: If there were to be a biological threat or pandemic, is there a national health agency in Austria that you would collaborate with?
Dr. Bayer: We have provincial health offices and veterinary offices who would analyze an outbreak of both human and animal pathogens. For some diseases, reporting is mandatory, and a prescribed reporting chain would be activated.
We also have a public institution called AGES, which stands for Agentur für Gesundheit und Ernährungssicherheit (Agency for Health and Food Safety). AGES is mainly concerned with food safety issues, but their work also includes for example hygiene checks in restaurants. If there is anything wrong or not up to our standards, this will be reported.
Q: I’ve looked at the SKKM Strategy for 2020. Could you tell me a bit more about this?
Dr. Bayer: I think it’s a good strategy. It formulates amongst others a plan for stronger education in the field of disaster management, which includes a four-day course on risk analysis, which I am leading. We invite interested persons from all organizations throughout our – as we call it – “SKKM family”; i.e. ministries, local governments, rescue organizations, and what we call critical infrastructure, including hospitals, the national broadcasting service (ORF), and any other party that would be relevant for disaster management.
At our next course, we will have 22 people from 13 different organizations. This is probably also part of our success: the mix of people. Everyone brings a different perspective. We all have different tasks to fulfill, for instance cave rescuers and mountain rescuers, but we know each other, and together we are strong.
We have a saying in our Department, which we call the 4Ks: “In Krisen kompetente Köpfe kennen”. Roughly translated it means that when there is a crisis you need to know competent people. And ideally you need to know them personally; it makes a huge difference if you can call someone and say, “hey, we did the course together a couple of weeks ago”, and people remember you. If you have built a relationship, you get things done more quickly.
Since Austria is relatively small, it’s easy to maintain a network of contacts. In Germany for instance, this is much more difficult to achieve. There are 80 million people, that’s a factor of 10 compared to Austria, and it’s hard to know everyone involved. In Austria, I know people in the provinces since I travel there a lot and they in turn come to Vienna for meetings.
Q: What are your greatest concerns regarding emergency preparedness in Austria today? What more could be done?
Dr. Bayer: We are very lucky and happy to have our current system in place. It is very good, also compared to the international level.
What more could be done? There are two things. Firstly, to maintain our volunteer services. Disaster management in Austria is also largely built upon a huge number of volunteers (~300.000 people in Austria of a population of around 8,8 million). When we lose our volunteers, we run into problems. In Austria, especially the fire service is a tradition. I was born in Vienna and have never been in the fire brigade, but in rural areas it’s a tradition. Starting in childhood, people there want to be firemen. They have social gatherings and grow into the service – and that’s the secret! So far, we have not experienced a significant loss of volunteers. But we need to make sure we keep the number of volunteers up.
Secondly, with regard to the 2020 strategy, we are now starting to think about the next iteration – the strategies for 2025 or 2030. We can deal with current hazards and threats, such as floods, for which our current system works perfectly. But we need to include and think about new threats as well, such as blackouts, and new technology, such as drones, cybercrime and hacking. For these new threats we don’t know what the extent of damage could be. We try to anticipate all of this, but it is a challenge to stay ahead. We had a large exercise on blackouts recently, where we brought together everyone.
Q: What do you believe is the most surprising thing about crisis management in Austria that people may not be aware of?
Dr. Bayer: What I really like is that we have a Safety Tour event for children in elementary school. It’s in third and fourth grade, when they are about 8 or 9 years old. The children take part in challenges and competitions and thereby learn about safety. These are citywide or across provinces, and sometimes also nationwide. The tasks include remembering emergency numbers and working a firehose, for instance shooting through a small hole, so they get an idea of what to do in emergency situations, or how to put out small fires. And I like that. One of my friends did a study on first aid with little children. You can actually even train 5-year-olds to do first aid, which I find very surprising. It’s something that people underestimate – how fast young people can learn and then carry the message home talk about that with their parents and family and thereby become multiplicators.