Laurent Alfonso: On the importance of human connections in civil protection
In February 2022, the entire population of Morocco and beyond held their breath during four long days. In a small town near the city of Chefchaouen, five-year-old Rayan Oram fell into an open well, plunging more than 30 meters through the pit’s narrow opening. Rescue operations, led by Morocco’s Civil Protection Directorate, started on a Tuesday evening, deploying bulldozers and digging equipment to reach the little boy. Due to fear of landslide, a huge trench had to be cut next to the well resulting in a long and arduous operation. For days on end, rescuers surveyed, planned and dug, working in shifts to keep the works going, aware that every hour counted. Despite the efforts of the rescuers and the local population who had gathered to support Rayan’s family, the event ended tragically on Saturday night.
Captain Laurent Alfonso recalls with emotion these four days. As an EU Civil Protection expert, he was in regular contact with the Moroccan team during the whole rescue operation. “The aim was to provide moral support above anything else”, he explains.
“The local teams were in full control of the situation, which was technically very complicated. But it can feel very lonely when you’re working on the ground around the clock. Moral support is essential during an operation, but also afterwards”.
A former top-level track and field athlete, Captain Alfonso is a French professional fire officer. His long career has sent him to almost all corners of the world to provide training, support or participate in major rescue operations, creating bonds and human connections along the way. He insists that when it comes to civil security and protection, the most important factor is always the human factor. In his own words, the COVID-19 pandemic showed that it was, for instance, the collective intelligence and solidarity that prevailed. More recently, the solidarity shown by European citizens to welcome and support Ukrainian refugees has complemented and worked in perfect harmony with governmental relief operations. From firefighters’ material to potato plants, all the relief material sent to Ukraine is activated through the European Civil Protection mechanism.
Captain Alfonso explains that civil protection relies on two main pillars: knowledge and action, both aimed at protecting populations. It is an integral part of society and is present every day around us, although one may tend to forget about it. In the media landscape, for example, there is seldom an explicit link between major incident relief operations and the civil protection mechanisms under which they operate. However, in today’s interdependent societies, transnational cooperative frameworks gain in relevance by the day, even more so as the effects of climate change are increasing in intensity and scope.
When it comes to climate change, Euro-Mediterranean cooperation on civil protection is of paramount importance. In such context, civil protection mechanisms must constantly adapt to be able to anticipate, prepare and respond to disasters in an effective and timely manner. Captain Alfonso is a “glass half full” type of person and likes to see the opportunities lying beneath the challenges. For instance, he is intimately convinced that countries from the Southern rim of the Mediterranean, who started to feel the negative impact of climate change sooner than other regions, can bring a great deal of knowledge when it comes to resilience capacities. As he puts it, “these countries are a laboratory of good practices, and an image of the future of some of the southernmost European areas”. Be it drought, locust risks, seismic events, or flash floods, these are all natural disasters that have affected countries from the Southern shores for several years.
Since 2009, the “Euromed Programme of Prevention, Preparedness and Response to Natural and Man-made Disasters” (PPRD South) provides a framework for regional cooperation on civil protection. Involved in this programme, Captain Alfonso highlights several advantages brought by it, starting with its regional and sub-regional scope which allows to cover a large geographical area. This project also allows for long-term planning and building around a common platform, while providing a holistic approach to the crisis management cycle in terms of prevention, preparation, response, and reconstruction. Multilateral cooperation often poses challenges, even more so with civil protection, as it reflects societies in which it is built, adapting to its unique requirements as well as to the needs of the population. However, programmes such as the PPRD, and the exchanges cultivated over the years between the two shores of the Mediterranean, have led to a form of “standardization” in terms of knowledge and response, reinforcing the quality of the strategic, tactical and operation outputs.
Captain Alfonso likes to remember that time where he felt his work was paying off. In a context where human losses can happen despite tremendous efforts and self-sacrifice, it can be hard at times to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Back in 2016, Captain Alfonso was sent to Argentina as part of a bilateral cooperation agreement with France, to train all forest fire managers of the country’s 23 provinces. The following year, he met the Argentinian teams again in Chile, in a transboundary cooperation framework to provide support in what was described as the worst wildfires in Chile’s history. In his own words, it warmed his heart to meet again with familiar faces in a dire situation, between whom trust was already established. Furthermore, it was also to him an excellent opportunity to measure the enormous potential of civil protection networks and the universal values it conveys. If civil protection should teach us all one single thing, it is that human connections and solidarity are the only way forward to a better tomorrow.
About the UfM and Civil Protection
In October 2009, the Directors-General of National Civil Protection Authorities of all the EU Member States and the 14 Mediterranean and Balkan Partner Countries of the UfM (Albania, Algeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Montenegro, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey) met in Brussels for a Steering Committee meeting to discuss and approve the action plan for the third Euromed civil protection programme.
Under the name “Euromed Programme of Prevention, Preparedness and Response to Natural and Man-made Disasters” (PPRD South), the project’s overall objective is to contribute to increasing resilience and reducing the social, economic and environmental costs of natural and man-made disasters in the Mediterranean Southern region.
Since February 2022, Captain Laurent Alfonso has been seconded by the Government of France to the Union for the Mediterranean to support the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue on civil protection.