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Civil protection chiefs plot common strategy in Geneva

Civil protection officials from around the world are meeting in Geneva to learn from each other how to deal with both natural and man-made disasters.

Although not a member of the International Civil Defence Organisation, Switzerland is playing a central role.

The ministerial conference of the ICDO is being held against the backdrop of globalisation, which presents risks and opportunities for civil protection forces - a central theme at this week's gathering.

"We can predict that there will be more and more disasters, because there are too many people on the planet and there's too much pollution," said Pascal Gondrand, head of the ICDO's information department.

But he said new technologies - better communications, early warning systems - offer the chance to deal with such catastrophes more effectively.

As well as improving cooperation between countries, one of the chief aims of this conference is to demonstrate that civil defence is a key tool in sustainable development.

"In helping to prevent and prepare for disasters and reducing their impact, civil defence helps to protect people, property and the environment," Gondrand told swissinfo. "Civil protection should be part of every country's protection plans"

He says the ICDO also wants to reaffirm the role of the state in tackling emergencies. Many of the ICDO's 50 members are developing countries, and too often, when disasters happen in these countries, it is non-governmental organisations that are first on the scene.

Gondrand says the ICDO is trying to encourage a more coordinated approach, where all the services involved in disasters work together. It is a model that Switzerland is trying to develop, and one that many countries are keen to adopt.

Switzerland, like most European countries, only has observer status with the ICDO, but it plays a big role in the organisation, helping to train civil defence workers from developing countries and funding a number of programmes.

"Like the United Nations, we are not members, but we contribute," says Jürg Balmer, of the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection.

"We have developed a certain model suited to our needs, but many other countries regard it as a good system. Of course, they cannot transfer our model wholesale to their own countries - the shelter programme would be far too costly, for example - but certainly the organisational approach can be applied elsewhere," Balmer told swissinfo.

Since the end of the Cold War, Switzerland has dramatically changed the goals of its civil defence forces. Where once its principal aim was to prepare for conflict, it now concentrates most of its energies on preparing for and dealing with disasters, such as the recent floods and mudslides in canton Valais.

"We try to maintain our readiness for wartime, but today, the main purpose of civil protection is to prepare for natural and man-made catastrophes," Balmer says.

The Federal Office for Civil Protection is currently engaged in overhauling the system for dealing with disasters. The project, simply called Civil Protection, aims to involve all the services that are called upon when disaster strikes.

"Civil Protection is more than the traditional civil defence units," Balmer explains. "We are trying to incorporate under one roof all these organisations -the police, fire brigade, utilities like gas, electricity and water, health services and civil protection units - so that in every region and every municipality there will be a coordinated approach to all aspects of civil protection, under one management."

But he points out that in Switzerland, such transformations take time, as everything needs the agreement of federal, cantonal and communal authorities. Balmer says he's hopeful that the new civil protection model will be in place in two or three years' time.

The ICDO is hoping to become a specialised United Nations agency, and already it cooperates closely with UN bodies concerned with disaster prevention or intervention.

It believes UN affiliation will persuade more developed countries to join and improve its funding - and consequently improve disaster prevention around the world.

And Civil Protection, like the Red Cross movement, has its own symbol - a blue triangle on an orange background, which the ICDO hopes will one day be just as recognisable as the inverted Swiss flag.

by Roy Probert


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