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The city hall of Grimma, eastern Germany, is surrounded by floods Monday, June 3, 2013. Flooding has spread across a large area of central Europe following heavy rainfall in recent days (Jens Wolf/AP)
The city hall of Grimma, eastern Germany, is surrounded by floods Monday, June 3, 2013. Flooding has spread across a large area of central Europe following heavy rainfall in recent days (Jens Wolf/AP)

A German lesson in flood relief efficiency Add to ...

In Calgary, thousands have volunteered to help respond to devastating floods, from cleaning up basements to making sandwiches. Safety experts have fretted over the health of these good Samaritans, working in dirty water and mould without rubber gloves and masks.

June has brought massive floods to Germany, too. But if you look at pictures of flood-relief efforts there, you’ll see well-equipped workers in blue uniforms and yellow hardhats, manning pumps, blasting damaged dams, delivering sandbags, and organizing relief logistics. They are volunteers, too. They are members of the Technisches Hilfswerk, or THW, the disaster-relief agency that relies on 80,000 volunteers.

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If Calgary’s floods demonstrate that ordinary folks will volunteer to help during disasters, then Germany has a few things to teach Canadians about disasters, too: There will be another disaster one day, and another, so it’s worth training the people who want to help.

About 8,200 THW volunteers were called out to deal with Germany’s June floods, bringing high-volume pumps that cleared out dirty, gritty water and grit, the THW’s president, Albrecht Broemme, said in a telephone interview.

It was the THW that organized the flood-relief meeting points for teams from the army, fire departments and THW. Its trucks delivered sandbags. Three dams had to be dynamited, so trained THW volunteers did it. “This is a kind of work that’s done by the THW, because firefighters are not allowed to blast,” Mr. Broemme said.

There are firefighters across Germany, who get the first calls. But the THW, with volunteers at almost 700 stations across Germany, has trained specialists.

But those are Germans. They’re relentlessly efficient and organized. Canadians wouldn’t do that. “I hear that all the time,” said Eva Cohen, a German-Canadian who has been trying to persuade officials in Canada to adopt the THW model. “But then when you read the news when these things happen, look at all the volunteers that pour out and are willing to help.”

Like the news in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix that Trent Field, who owns a hydraulic vacuum company in Prince Albert, Sask., drove to Alberta with his brother Jason and 15-year-old nephew Cody to pump water from people’s basements.

And the uncomfortable truth is that emergency-response authorities in Canada generally feel they’re short of capacity to face a big disaster. There’s only a handful of heavy search and rescue teams in Canada. A federal program to fund emergency responders was cut. Some Canadians have shown interest in the THW idea: Mr. Albrecht came to Canada to explain it to officials here last year, and officials from the federal government and city of Ottawa went to Germany to see the THW in action in June.

Because of its history – its army was disbanded after the Second World War, but it needed trained people for disasters – Germany has accidentally tackled the economic conundrum of disaster relief. Disasters overwhelm local authorities like firefighters and police, and require the efforts of large numbers of people, often well-trained people. But it’s expensive to pay large numbers of trained people for events that only happen once in a while.

There’s the army, of course, but it’s expensive to use. More than 2,200 soldiers deployed for the Alberta floods, and they did some things few others could do, like rescuing people from rooftops with helicopters. They’ve also been helping provincial officials check infrastructure, and helping with water purification. They’ve already started to leave, and they usually do leave before all the work is done, because the military is an expensive tool for a specialized job. Still, the army gets called out for a disaster – floods, wild fires, hurricanes, ice storms – pretty much every year.

But 99 per cent of the THW are volunteers; they get their salaries covered when they’re called up for a disaster, but train and prepare for free. The TWH has trained volunteers that can do search and rescue after a train accident, send up helium balloons with powerful lights for night searches, determine whether a building is safe after an earthquake or flood, or reconnect power lines. A THW team is in Jordan now building up a refugee camp and purifying its water. There’s also a large youth-training program.

And the cost? The Canadian military costs $20-billion a year, and the THW costs Germany about $245-million. Maybe it’s time to learn a German lesson about disasters.

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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