ESTONIAN RESCUE BOARD (ERB)
THE TURBULENT YEAR OF 2020
Although the Estonian Rescue Board (ERB) has not been the lead body during the COVID-19 pandemic, it nevertheless has played an important role in the crisis. On 12 March, 2020 the government of Estonia declared an emergency situation for the whole territory of Estonia. For those of us in the ERB this meant that we had to switch from our regular working regime to a staff regime in which we reduced drastically the services that we provide (e.g. prevention, fire supervision etc).
The main task for us was to secure business continuity in our field, meaning responding to incidents and supporting the local government authorities across the country in coping with the crisis and coordinating the information exchange between different local and state authorities. This may sound like a simple task but it was not, because as in any crisis, being on top of the information flow is one of the greatest challenges. The main reason why the ERB was given that task was due to its expertise in the crisis-coordination field. Although the emergency situation ended on 1 May 2020, our role of being the main crisis partner for local authorities and our continuous support for the Estonian Health Board in resolving the crisis is still ongoing. Another important role was to deliver face masks and disinfectant all over the country. The ERB has a good network of professional and voluntary fire stations throughout Estonia, and that was the main reason it was used to reach as wide a range of people as possible. In addition we helped the police and border guard board with our drones to prevent mass gatherings and transmission of the virus.
As mentioned above, one of the tasks for the ERB was the maintenance of business continuity. In order to achieve that, we worked out different solutions for our first responders. As we were in a pandemic that mainly spread through contact, it was important to work out how to reduce such contact. We tried to maintain every fire station as a bubble, and within each fire station every shift also. So, the changing of shifts in stations was made contactless. We tried to avoid moving firefighters between stations as we did previously in order to maintain a lifesaving number of personnel in a station. All in all, this was more costly initially, but kept the spread of the virus under control and we had no case of an entire fire station being closed for more than 24 hours/one shift as a result of having a shift in quarantine for being in contact with a COVID-positive individual. Of course, all of this was done hand-in-hand with the conventional measures of using face masks, disinfectants etc.
Estonia has a relatively small population and low population density and this in combination with a reasonably good COVID-19 testing system meant that test results were available in less than 24 hours, sometimes even 12 hours, and we could respond to the positive test result quickly and isolate any close contacts. First responders received video instruction on how to use protective equipment and how to safely dispose of it when attending incidents such as car accidents.
Estonia has a quite low natural-hazards risk, limited mostly to occasional flooding and forest fires. The year 2020 was record-breaking for the ERB in a positive sense in many ways: the number of building, dwelling, forest and landscape fires was the lowest since Estonia regained its independence. The number of casualties in fires was also the lowest since 1991. No major forest fires were reported last year in Estonia. There were not even any European Civil Protection Mechanism activations on forest fires within the whole of Europe last year.
As Estonia was the scene of fierce fighting during the Second World War, one of our challenges each year is the recovery of war relics such as unexploded ordnance. In 2020, a record-breaking 9,041 explosive devices were defused. The main reason for this is probably that the winter and spring of 2020 were warm and more people spent time in nature because of COVID-19 restrictions and many discoveries were made by people by walking in the forests.
In 2020 the work of the ERB was greatly transformed by COVID-19. Cooperation with partners from different countries also suffered due to the pandemic. Many trips and meetings were postponed and several had to be cancelled. Luckily, several employees could still participate in international cooperation events to develop partnerships, learn something new and help people in need. At the end of the year, Sudan suffered from a refugee crisis, when thousands of refugees arrived daily from Ethiopia fleeing a military conflict there. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asked the International Humanitarian Partnership (IHP) network for support in creating housing and working conditions for the people involved in solving the crisis. Estonia contributed with a base camp technician during the period of 19 December 2020 to 23 January 2021. The challenges included travel restrictions and spending a compulsory 14 days in isolation in Khartoum, before advancing to relief operations. All in all it took more time with the restrictions, but that is the new reality!
Written by : Toomas Kääparin / Photo Credit: ERB