Storm Vaia and the role of volunteers in the Belluno area

Storm Vaia, which raged through Italy’s Eastern Alps in October 2018, highlighted how vulnerable a territory can be, the tangibility of climate change and the importance of weather warnings. The violence of this storm forced authorities to critically review protocols and time frames, but once again shone a positive light on volunteers. Their responsiveness meant they took the leading role in the delicate process of emergency communication. Storm Vaia is a good example because it affected areas where organised volunteering is increasingly becoming an institution, also due to the evident requirements of such a complex geomorphology.

The Belluno Fire Brigade

The Belluno Fire Brigade is exemplary, having probably the most detachments of volunteers in Italy, spread across the area: in fact, there are twenty one of them, evenly distributed throughout the province. In this area, the first phase of the emergency was tackled by these fire brigade volunteers. Where there is often difficult terrain, being an active member of the community is part of an innate sense of responsibility, representing a value that characterises mountain communities. The Chief of the Belluno Fire Brigade, Girolamo Bentivoglio Fiandra, defined this virtue as follows: “It is a sort of tradition and culture of self-protection, which characterises mountain environments. They are always ready for action right from the start.” An innate and widespread rescue culture which, in the context of Vaia, when many roads were blocked by falling trees, allowed for first aid to arrive to areas that would otherwise have remained isolated for a number of hours, due to the need to cut through the trees and clear the roads. So, the volunteers were the first to bring both technical and psychological support to people, often elderly and finding themselves isolated. “Organised volunteering” of course refers to something that goes well beyond improvisation and that feeling of momentum experienced when, faced with an emergency, people feel the need to be useful.

The importance of training

First of all, it means that the volunteers have been trained, which is challenging considering that these people often have professions that have nothing to do with civil protection or healthcare volunteering.
After training, volunteers are assigned a role to play in the rescue process, but before this they are also given a “communication” role when an emergency arises. In the case of the volunteers for the Belluno Fire Brigade, the local command unit is in charge of both training and activating the Operations Room.
When they are called upon to add to the local rescue effort, – the Chief reiterated – they are firefighters to all intents and purposes.” As is the case in other areas, there are detachments that are operational, organised in shifts at their relative bases and who are ready to go in a matter of minutes. Other detachments, on the other hand, provide support by being on call, meaning they have more time than those on shift to become a member of the permanent team.
Since these are people who work and have their own private life, volunteers are obviously most operational at weekends. This passion requires commitment and awareness, an added value that is a must for rescue professionals, considering that they represent 50% of operators who intervene in an emergency. Just think of the figures from the Belluno area: the 250 professional firefighters there can count on 450 volunteers.
What could have been done better? As is so often the case, to answer this question, the requests for help and the damages caused by the emergency (in the case of storm Vaia, these were very limited in terms of people but devastating for the environment) must be the starting point for a post-emergency situation that can act as a prelude to the next. The very reason behind post-emergency communication is to provide an element to work on for effective pre-emergency communication, should this be required in the future.

The full interview with the Chief of the Belluno Fire Brigade, Girolamo Bentivoglio Fiandra is available at this link.

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