Taking personal responsibility: Be Prepared!

To act appropriately in the context of natural hazards, it is essential to be well informed. This is just as applicable to the team in charge of a scout camp as it is for individuals who are out and about on their own. A lot has been done to improve the general public’s hazard awareness and competence in recent years.

Bern scouts cantonal camp
Bern scouts cantonal camp in August 2014 on Lake Biel. The weather was mostly rainy but there was no major storm. Nonetheless, the leadership team would have been ready for one.
© David Bühler

Text: Peter Bader

The scouts had been warned: two thunderstorms had hit the site of the Swiss Gymnastics Festival in Biel in June 2013. They lifted the tents from their pegs and sent portable toilets flying through the air like matchboxes. Eighty-four people were injured, some of them seriously: one died from his injuries in early 2015.

One year after the disaster, Stephan Schwaar, whose scout name is “Schumba”, was the main person responsible for the two-week cantonal scout camp in Bern. Around 2000 scouts met on Lake Biel very close to the former site of the gymnastics festival.

Comprehensive safety precautions were taken: the campsite on the meadow was selected with the low flood risk in mind and was 50 metres higher than the level of the lake. The leadership team received information about possible thunderstorms with hazard levels from one to five via the weather pool of the Bern cantonal buildings insurance company (Gebäudeversicherung Bern, GVB). The organisers took note of a tree felling zone near the sleeping quarters on the edge of the forest.

In addition, various emergency scenarios were played through in advance of the event – from the clearing or dismantling of the tents in the case of a storm to the evacuation of the site. And because it rained frequently over the two weeks, the scouts cancelled individual activities on the nearby Hagneck canal as a precautionary measure. “The fact that we placed such emphasis on good risk management, definitely paid off,” says healthcare professional Stephan Schwaar, who resigned specifically from his job to organise the event.

Forewarned is forearmed

“Only people who are aware of natural hazards, know about them, and know how to behave correctly and protect themselves, can act responsibly,” says Martin Buser from the Risk Management Section at the FOEN. This applies equally to the event organisers and individuals. Various measures have been implemented since the devastating storms of summer 2005, which highlighted certain weaknesses in this regard. The basis for this action is the “Optimisation of Warning and Alerting in the Case of Natural Hazards” (OWARNA) report.

At the launch of the new natural hazards internet portal www.naturgefahren.ch in July 2014, FOEN Director Bruno Oberle described it as the “latest building block” in the implementation of the OWARNA project. Previously, if you wanted to find out whether it would be safe to travel from home to your holiday house on a stormy rainy winter’s day, you had to look for information separately from MeteoSwiss, from the FOEN and from the Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF). The new portal, which involves the cooperation of all of the relevant federal authorities, shows the current hazard situation on a single easily read map. Whether you’re planning a mountain hike, ski tour or river cruise, with a few mouse clicks you can access comprehensive information about any storms, heavy rain, avalanches, floods or forest fires that may be looming. Recommendations for behaviour before, during and after natural hazards round off the detailed content provided on the website.

“The natural hazards portal was a hit from the outset,” says Barbora Neveršil, FOEN Information Officer for Natural Hazards. “50,000 hits, the maximum for a single day, were recorded in July 2014 when there was heavy rain and various floods around the country.”

Expert local knowledge is important

The availability of local expert knowledge on the ground is also indispensable for the management of serious natural events says Martin Buser, who worked as a fire brigade commander in his home commune before taking up his position at the FOEN. The FOEN organises courses for cantonal natural hazards trainers who, in turn, prepare local natural hazards consultants in the communes and regions for their work. These roles are carried out by locals from the police force, fire brigade, health service, technical operations and civil defence as well as forestry workers who are very familiar with their commune territories.

On the training course they learn how to assume an advisory role in the preparatory phase, during a hazard event that results in damage and during the damage analysis – “to complement the existing experts, as outsiders with a clear head,” as Martin Buser notes. They can assume a consultancy role for emergency and evacuation planning, providing concrete suggestions on the timely removal of cars from a hazard zone or on the clearing of cellars and basements.

The concept of the local consultants has been well received: around 300 of them are already at work. The vast majority of cantons have already requested the training documents from the FOEN.

Many house owners remain indifferent

The cantonal buildings insurance companies also play an important role in raising awareness about natural hazards. It is very much in their own interest for house owners to be familiar with natural hazards and to act in a hazard appropriate way. The fact that action is still required in this regard is demonstrated by a study carried out in 2014 by the foundation for the cantonal buildings insurance companies (Präventionsstiftung der Kantonalen Gebäudeversicherungen, KGV). A survey of house owners and building clients revealed that their interest in the topic of natural hazard prevention “appears to be rather minimal” and “risk perception or assessment of risk is not generally very prominent”. This is all the more annoying as “with the necessary knowledge and three sand bags in front of the cellar window, you can prevent several thousand euro worth of damage.”

Various actors are trying to eliminate this deficit. The Swiss Engineers and Architects Association (SIA) offers further training courses and provides a brochure on the consideration of natural hazards in planning applications to download on its website. Together with the cantonal buildings insurance companies and other partners the SIA also operates the website www.schutz-vor-naturgefahren.ch. The National Platform for Natural Hazards also provides information for building clients and owners on its website.

The buildings insurance companies themselves run regular campaigns and provide weather alarms, information material and advisory services. Finally, the majority of natural hazard maps can be viewed on the internet.

Natural hazards at school

Dealing with natural hazards has recently also become an element of the school syllabus. The new Lehrplan 21 syllabus, which can be introduced by the cantons in the years to come, contains the natural hazard prevention element of the subject ‘Nature People Environment’. A corresponding project for the lower grades already exists in the canton of Geneva explains Martin Buser: “Natural hazards surround us throughout our entire lives. So it is important to familiarise children and young people with them at an early age and to use them as knowledge multipliers.”

In the flood-prone Mattequartier of Bern, the efforts made have already borne fruit. People’s behaviour has changed, Martin Buser is pleased to report: “They are attentive, comply with the defined threshold value, and use mobile flood protection and sandbags where necessary. As a result it was possible to prevent serious damage in recent years.”

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Last modification 20.05.2015

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