Thousands of helpers are still on the move in the areas affected by the floods; in addition to the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) and the many professional and volunteer fire departments, as well as the police and rescue workers, Bundeswehr soldiers were also deployed in several places. Nevertheless, now that the masses of water have gone and debris, mud and garbage remain, there are also more and more voices asking critically how disasters like the heavy rain in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia should be dealt with in the future. In the past few days, there have been repeated complaints, also from individual residents, that it was mainly due to self-organization that the cleanup work went ahead.
Niels Kröning heads the European and German business of the Canadian company CAE. The company focuses on the training and education of military forces, fire departments and the police, and is the largest provider in this segment in the world. Based in Stolberg, near Aachen, the company trains emergency forces with a good 2,500 specialists. "We won't be able to prevent every disaster, but we can be better prepared as a society," Kröning says. "You can train for it, locate danger spots and better prepare people who are on duty there for risks."
The crisis manager believes that in Germany we are well aware of the force with which disasters could strike us, it's just that there is still too little training on this across neighboring states, federal states and emergency forces. "We like to procure large material in Germany to cope with such scenarios. That's right because it takes modern low-loaders, excavators and helicopters," Kröning says. "But training is something we have to define as a core issue in the same way. What's the point if we have all these modern assets, but the responders don't train with each other, and there's bound to be some overload in the field."
Putting a greater focus on regular training is a political challenge, the manager contends. Unlike the military, however, which - unless they are deployed abroad - has quite a lot of capacity for training, firefighters and police officers are often on standby. So it's not so easy to do more large-scale exercises on site.
What's more, these disaster drills often take place at closed-off locations such as old airports or coalfields that are no longer in use. Transferring such training locations to real-life conditions can be difficult. CAE, for example, builds digital twins of individual locations. Erftstadt, for example, could be digitally mapped exactly as it looks - and then modeled in the exercise scenario what would happen if a bridge collapsed or a federal highway flooded.
For example, using the digital copy, training should also be possible for emergency forces without having to drive hundreds of units across the republic. "We need to get much more into a digital training environment, where we put users into a large-scale scenario. Then you can practice with each other, whether they are from the Bundeswehr, the THW, the fire department or the police," Kröning says.
This is not just about preparing emergency forces, he adds. "You will also be able to better localize danger spots through digitally supported large-scale exercises. We can't prevent it from raining, but we can prevent the rain from causing such a disaster," Kröning says. "And we can practice exactly what who should do and when. That's what a crisis prevention center could be used to learn and practice."
Communication has sometimes been difficult; in Ahrweiler, for example, the district administration has asked volunteers to leave their vehicles where possible so that traffic routes could be kept clear for rescue and emergency forces. The 5,000 or so emergency workers there are coordinated by the Trier Supervisory and Service Directorate. In this case, the emergency managers benefited from the fact that the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) maintains a Federal Academy for Civil Protection and Civil Defense in Ahrweiler, of all places. But the infrastructure is not in place everywhere - and the collapse of communications in many places has made arrangements more difficult.
That's one reason why politicians are currently debating so-called "cell broadcasting," a technology that sends a message via mobile telephony to all recipients who are in the radio cell in question. "Relying only on the cellular network is negligent," warns Dietmar Gollnick, head of the Berlin-based company E-Message, however. "Double-knit" is the alerting safer in any case.
The paging operator sells pagers. These small mobile receivers had their heyday in the 1990s, when cell phones were new and comparatively expensive. The providers at that time were called Quix or Skyper, they were aimed at private customers, but could not hold their own for long against mobile communications, which seemed more attractive. E-Message is the only paging service left and offers its services - primarily for professionals, i.e. institutions such as fire departments and companies.
The Berlin-based company says it owns and operates Europe's largest security radio network based on NP2M (narrowband point-to-multipoint). It comprises around 1200 transmitter stations in Germany and France. For a long time, E-Message was almost laughed at for its seemingly obsolete technology - similar to the shortwave standard VHF. Now its uniform dissemination of warning information to the population could become more important again. The messages, usually short texts, reach their recipients "more reliably than via public cell phone networks," E-Message emphasizes. This also works in highly sensitive facilities such as hospitals or in shielded areas such as underground garages, tunnels or reinforced concrete buildings, he adds.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema