When a deadly earthquake hit the Mexico City region this week, buildings collapsed, leaving many people trapped in the rubble, and so far more than 270 deaths. Finnish rescue teams were on standby as always, ready to assist if a request came from the Mexican Government or EU coordination centre.
It’s been the same story in the last month as a series of hurricanes crossed the Caribbean, leaving a widespread trail of destruction.
Finland has a pool of 240 rescue experts and specially trained dogs standing by, to fly anywhere in the world within 12 hours, from their base in Kuopio.
When Kimmo Tuominen stepped off the plane in Haiti last year, he was expecting to see more damage. Hurricane Matthew had ripped through the island just a few days before causing massive devastation. But the airport had been spared.
“The hurricane hit only part of Haiti. So part of it was hit very bad, but part was not hit at all” says Tuominen, who spent three weeks on the island as part of rescue and assessment efforts.
“So of course when I was at the airport everything was normal. I didn’t see anything which is not normal. Then after going to the small villages which were hit by the hurricane, yeah, it was very striking. There was lots of damage”.
Hurricane Matthew was the first category 5 storm of 2016.
According to the United Nations, 750,000 people needed urgent assistance in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. An estimated 1000 people are believed to have died, and some cities had 80% of the buildings flattened.
“Many people lost their homes, so they made shelters. At first they could go to schools, but pretty fast you get them out from the school because the children need to go there” says Tuominen, 47, who works in the Helsinki Rescue Department.
“Quite many organisations brought clothes and tents and that kind of things, so shelter, water, those are the first, important things” he says.
“At that time the priority was clean drinking water, because in many cases the clean water and the dirty water get mixed and then you have problems with cholera” explains Tuominen.
Finland’s full 48-person strong urban rescue team hasn’t been deployed as an entire unit – with all their specialist equipment and sniffer dogs – since a mission to Iran in 2003. But in the last few years, Finland has sent a steady stream of experts to disaster hot spots around the world. Officials have offered Finns to go with EU teams to recent hurricane-hit zones and Mexico if required.
Although they’re specially trained for cold weather missions at sub-zero temperatures, the Finnish team could go anywhere. However, they have to be invited first.
“We have been building up our system since 1991, and like most of the Europeans, we have trained the people, we have gear and equipment and we would like to send the teams but we have to be reasonable” explains Jari Honkanen from the Interior Ministry’s Rescue Service Department.
“We have to respect the country, what are their needs, we don’t just decide in Finland that we will send someone. That would be quite rude” he says.
Honkanen explains that Finland didn’t send their urban search and rescue team to Mexico because “first of all, I’m not sure if Mexico asked for assistance”.
Normally, a request would come from the national government or Embassy of the country where the disaster has hit. Then Finland’s Crisis Management Centre in Kuopio would get instructions from the European coordination centre in Brussels.
Sometimes, distance plays a role. Other times, countries – like Mexico or the US – are well equipped and ready to respond to their own emergency situations and might not need outside help.
Finland’s international responders come from all across the country, and constantly train for potential rescue scenarios.
“They are mainly professional rescue workers, but then we have a medical component, and the [technical staff] plus the base camp, so there are different professions on the team and I think 70% of the roster is rescue workers in Finland” explains Jukka Räsänen, CMC’s Planning Officer.
“We are keen that personnel come not only from the Helsinki region, it’s the whole of Finland where we have a pool of experts” he says.
The CMC warehouse in Kuopio is stocked with all the equipment they might need, depending on the rescue mission, and what part of the world they could be called to.
“We are self sustaining” says Räsänen. “That means all the equipment, clothing, tents, technical materials, snowmobiles and ATV all-terrain vehicles”.
When fireman Kimmo Tuominen went to Haiti late last year, he knew he would be working in tough conditions. But it’s something his day job has prepared him for.
“I am a fire officer in Helsinki, so in my everyday work I see deaths and lots of injured people, and I see very bad things so I guess I am pretty prepared” he explains.
“Of course always in my daily work and also there [in Haiti], if you deal with children, then this all is more difficult”.
“If you have children yourself” – Tuominen has three daughters – “then there is a risk you could get too emotional”.