Article: Dr. Karsten Ocker

Proving Ground for Military and Civilian Cooperation

The surveys, statistics and prognoses of national and international disaster researchers and multinational insurance companies all seem to concur; there is an ever-increasing probability that catastrophes could occur anywhere in the world. This applies not just to the potential frequency of such events.


The surveys, statistics and prognoses of national and international disaster researchers and multinational insurance companies all seem to concur; there is an ever-increasing probability that catastrophes could occur anywhere in the world. This applies not just to the potential frequency of such events. The factors that can cause disasters have multiplied and the likely severity of consequences for nations and individuals has grown in proportion. There is thus an increasing need for governmental and non-governmental organisations, national and international organisations and structures to pool their capacities, networks and resources in order to make their response to disaster situations as effective as possible. It will become more difficult in future for individual organisations, systems or nations to alone deal adequately with the results of disasters for which there are now more potential causes and the effects of which may not be restricted within national borders.

We may not yet have fully lost control, but we are certainly unable to intervene over the short or medium term in the processes that produce natural disasters, such as earthquakes, undersea quakes and climatic change that result in flooding, hurricanes and drought, and find it difficult to predict when they will occur, what form they will take and what their outcome will be. Disasters that affect the technological sector, particularly where power supply is involved, can paralyse single or several nations, or even whole continents because of the closely-knit networks and the reciprocal dependence of systems. The growth of the travel industry has made it increasingly difficult to control the spread of disease. In a pandemic situation, where large numbers of the population are infected, social, government and economic processes can grind to a halt. Criminals and terrorists can hack into computer systems and cause these to crash or malfunction, impairing or destroying in the process the functioning of vital and economic processes of developed nations.

At the same time we are seeing a decrease in the availability of resources, finances, specialised personnel and rapid-reaction equipment, mainly as a result of the current financial and banking crisis. Businesses, transport and logistics systems, as well as human resources managers, will have increasingly diminishing finances at their disposal to make provision for eventualities that cannot be directly translated into economic profits, to stockpile and maintain reserves, or to keep equipment ready for instant call out. Financial stringencies and lack of personnel will limit the capacities of governmental organisations to make the necessary provisions. Rapid technological developments also mean that rescue equipment and materials have become increasingly complex, so that only highly qualified or specially trained personnel can actually employ them. It is also often the case that these personnel are often indispensable to the maintenance of homeland operations, and cannot be spared for deployment abroad as part of a disaster response team. As equipment becomes more complex, it also becomes more expensive, so that numbers of units and reserves dwindle.

The growth in world population and the increasing congregation of the populace in massive conurbations means that disasters affect escalating numbers of individuals and cause mounting damage to and loss of infrastructure. This has been appallingly exemplified in the case of the recent earthquake in Haiti. There are now also such close-knit interconnections in the power and raw material distribution industries, in transport systems and particularly in the IT sector that reciprocal dependence and effects can cause damage to spread like a tsunami to areas that are apparently far removed from the location of the original catastrophe.

Those affected, whose misfortune and suffering are immediately presented to a global audience through the modern media, are now more likely to feel that they have a basic right to rapid and effective support in disaster situations. This involves not just the direct rescue of the individual concerned and his/her family, but follow-up medical and psychological treatment and support, the provision of a hygienic living environment and the supply of clothing, food and water. The moral and ethical stance, political significance, status of technological development and economic and financial capacity of nations are now measured in terms of the efficacy and sustainability of their response to disasters.

In view of the generalised considerations above, the only rational response can be to appeal for greater pooling of capacities and resources, for clearer definition of areas of responsibility and of administrative systems, the systematic employment of standardised management processes and the early and permanent establishment of a network of services with the involvement of the population as a whole which will provide for effective and mutual coordination and cooperation in national and international responses to disasters – a response that should surmount all self-centredness, prejudices and disputes over resources between organisations and structures.

Methods and aims

And it is here that the military medical services and the national and international non-governmental aid organisations can take a leading role. On closer analysis, it is apparent that these have the same aims and employ comparable methods using the same tools when responding to disasters.

The primary objectives are always to rescue and protect those affected by disasters, to provide them with medical and psychological support, and to supply them with water, food and clothing. At the same time, registration of survivors, transport, evacuation and/or the creation of a hygienic living environment on site are essential requirements, while the extent of damage and its consequences need to be limited.

Military and civilian aid organisations can complement each other ideally in this context because they differ with regard to the time factor required until their support can be made available. Immediate aid will necessarily take the form of self-help or help from neighbours and friends. The local civilian rescue services will be the first organisations to reach the scene. Because NGOs are cross-border organisations and are prepared for rapid response, they will provide the next wave of immediate aid following homeland catastrophes and disasters in other countries. More or less at the same time within their own homeland, but often somewhat delayed by the need to obtain diplomatic authorisation prior to their deployment abroad, the military medical and support services will be in the position to provide effective disaster aid over the medium term with the help of their own logistics, transport and communication facilities and organisational structures. This has the consequential effect that it is possible to disengage the immediate response personnel of the NGOs, usually volunteers, after one to two weeks. Once the military organisations are in place, the NGOs can begin to provide support to long term reconstruction measures – which input may need to be maintained over many years – with the assistance of donations and their own resources. This will have as its objective the restoration of normal living conditions and, in addition to the direct reconstruction of the housing infrastructure, will involve the long term provision of advisors to help rebuild, for example, the education system, the local economy and agriculture. 

In addition to this difference in the response time factor, the capacities and resources of the military and civilian NGOs in many other areas also perfectly complement and supplement each other. Examples are the provision of first aid and support measures, as civilian aid workers generally have fewer problems in gaining access to disaster sites, while logistics, the transport and operation of heavy equipment and implementation of security measures can be more effectively achieved by the military organisations.

In addition to the dangers associated with the aftermath of any disaster, all aid workers in countries in which basic government control systems have broken down or were never very effective, as in so-called “failed states”, will be additionally exposed to the risks arising from civil unrest and criminal activities. In these situations, close collaboration between military security units, military medical services and aid workers with civilian NGOs will be necessary to make possible the distribution of relief aid and the provision of the aid measures required.

Procedures and processes

Extensive preparations are necessary if this aid is to be effectively deployed. To avert potential problems, it will be necessary to install warning systems and obtain information on specific local or regional hazards in the disaster area and on any protection infrastructure available from the civilian or military authorities that may be useful. In addition, it will be necessary to establish whether there is settlement and development on potentially precarious hillside or river bank regions, where special rescue measures may need to be employed. It will be the task of NGOs to find out the quantity and quality of medical first aid training and other qualifications among the local population that can be used in self-help and neighbourhood help. This will require setting up and maintaining contacts with any local aid organisations. Information on critical infrastructure, transport routes, security structures and landing places for helicopters must be obtained from local or regional authorities or by means of air reconnaissance and this information must be made available to a sufficiently wide circle of persons.

Demarcation of responsibilities and command and administration systems must be defined and tried and tested by all those involved prior to potential missions; it must also be possible to put these rapidly into place. The relevant organisations and command and supervisory personnel must know each other and have the opportunity to gain confidence in each other’s capabilities and methods of working through collaboration in mutual exercises. Inventories of the actual personnel, materials and equipment that can be provided by the military, NGOs, aid organisations, and by trade and industry must be available to all, and must also be regularly updated. Those who will be providing disaster aid must be familiar with domestic and supranational affiliation and network structures, and be familiar with procedures for obtaining support to cover immediate or particular needs from areas outside those immediately affected by the disaster and have the capacity to incorporate these additional helpers and aid in their structures. This also means that all those involved in disaster response will need to have some command of foreign languages.


The widespread threat to all of us represented by disasters, which can be caused by many different factors depending on region, nation or other geographic area, requires that we pool the capacities of all governmental and non-governmental organisations involved in the provision of aid. It is our ethical and moral duty to do all we can, without restriction or constraint, to help others affected by disaster. Because there is a multiplicity of potential causes, very extensive damage can result and it is not possible to confine the consequences within particular national boundaries in our modern globalised environment, it will never be possible to fully contain and master disasters with the resources at our command. Our mutual efforts will only be able to limit and mitigate the damaging effects on humans, animals, the environment, the infrastructure and other material property.

But this requires that military and civilian organisations collaborate closely, learn to respect and appreciate each other, exchange information, make possible integration in their own administrative and operative systems, standardise the equipment, materials and IT processes they use as far as possible, and prepare, exercise and train together. The efforts currently being invested in competing for financial support, visibility and significance, influence, power and personal advantages must be redirected towards ensuring that the best level of aid is provided with the best means available by the most capable personnel for the benefit of those unfortunate enough to be disaster victims.

Dr. Karsten Ocker

Bundesarzt ASB

Chairman of the Permanent Conference 

On Disaster Preparedness and Civil Protection

Date: 01/05/2010

Source: MCIF 2/2010