Nordic disaster relief collaboration

Thorfinn Stainforth @ WikiCommons
Patong Beach on Phuket after the 2004 Tsunami. // Photo: Thorfinn Stainforth @ WikiCommons

The Nordic Embassies have learned from the 2004 Tsunami. In Phuket, the area in Thailand with the most Scandinavian tourists, a Nordic Emergency Group was created in the wake of the catastrophe. Even though this group focus on Phuket, Danish Consul Birgit S. Kondrup-Palmqvist Carlstedt is confident, that the know-how can be used other places in Thailand. 

Half empty airplanes leaving a disaster struck Phuket, was the grim reality during the 2004 tsunami. But last year at Nordic Emergency Group Phuket’s (NEGP) yearly meeting, the largest Nordic tour operators and travel agencies promised, to fill their airplanes and hotel rooms with backpackers and customers from competitors in case of a disaster.

The tour operators were not the only problem in 2004, Foreign Affairs Ministries were criticized for a lack of capacity and for failing to understand the gravity of situation in time. Especially in Sweden where one of the main reasons for Foreign Minister Laila Freivald’s 2006 resignation, were heavy criticism for a slow and inadequate handling of the disaster where 543 Swedes died.

For the Danish Consul in Thailand Birgit S. Kondrup-Palmqvist Carlstedt, it is important to say that the Danish Embassy and Foreign Ministry have been able to use experiences from the 2004 Tsunami to prepare for new disasters.

“It is difficult to prepare for something as big and surprising as the tsunami, a word that we could barely spell when it hit. But we can prepare for a plane crash, a hotel fire and boat- or bus accidents,” Birgit S. Kondrup-Palmqvist Carlstedt says and adds that she believes the experience from these preparations will be an advantage in case of a larger disaster.

NEGP consists of the Nordic Embassies, the largest Nordic tour operators, travel agencies, the biggest travel insurance companies, the Nordic police liaison office and some of the larger hospitals. The group aims to extend the group to cover all parties involved in a crisis or disaster.

All eyes on Phuket
Every year around Christmas and New Year’s Eve a weekly average of around 60 direct flights from the Nordic countries hits the tarmac at Phuket’s international airport, this huge concentration of Nordic tourists combined with the fact that the group was created as a reaction to the 2004 Tsunami, is the reason the NEGP has their focus on Phuket.

But Phuket is not the only destination for the 3 to 400.000 Nordic citizens that visit Thailand every year. According to the Danish Consul BirgitS. Kondrup-Palmqvist Carlstedt, NEGP has discussed covering other popular tourist destinations as well, she argues that it will be easy to expand the group and cover other provinces.

“It is the same Embassies, the same tour operators and some of the hospitals will even be the same,” she says and adds that NEGP has discussed if the group should focus on other areas like Hua Hin, Bangkok and Pattaya in Thailand with many Nordic tourists.

Hotel on fire
Tuesday the 2nd December NEGP met to prepare for the winter season with a drill. This year the group was running through an exercise of a severe hotel fire. The fictive hotel had 525 rooms and the whole exercise was being made as a table top exercise, meaning that the participants were working in groups, discussing how to handle the situation while they every 10th minute were gaining more information and were put in different dilemmas.

The goal of the drill is to make sure everyone knows what they should do and that they can trust one another during a crisis or in a disaster.

“When shit hits the fan we are all in the same boat, and it is important that we can help each other. Last year was the first meeting in a few years, we used it to look each other in the eye and say, ‘are you with us or not?’ and to find out how the different tour operators could contribute,” Birgit says and adds the NEGP meetings are exceptional opportunities for this, because they represent the only formal collaboration between Embassies and tour operators.

In addition to a stronger network, according to Birgit S. Kondrup-Palmqvist Carlstedt, the most important thing to get out of the meeting is to keep cool and think straight, get as much information as possible from people who would call or from local authorities.

Lower pressure on local authorities
Nordic Emergency Group Phuket represents a large group and if all members would all call at the same authorities at the same time they could bring down the communication lines.

“If all organizations involved would contact the same authorities at the same time, many of us would not be able to get the information we need. We cannot get in contact with the authorities, if they have experienced a meltdown. Since we are all going to ask the same questions, it is easier if just one of us is responsible for communicating with one authority,” Birgit S. Kondrup-Palmqvist Carlstedt says.

Even with a close collaboration the Embassies’ capacity is limited. In case of a major disaster they can ask their respective Foreign Ministries for assistance. The Ministries will allocate extra personnel, typically from other Embassies in the region or in form of a special task force of trained colleagues from the home country. This happened at the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, where the Danish Foreign Ministry sent reinforcement from other embassies and from the home country.

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