The functioning of the EU CBRN stockpiling system


Interview with Dr. Antonella Cavallo, rescEU CBRN Lead at EU Commission DG ECHO, the European Commission’s Department for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

Dr. Antonella Cavallo from the European Commission’s Department for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations tells Nora at CBNW magazine all about the functioning of the EU CBRN stockpiling system as well as how the EU is enhancing its CBRN detection, identification, sampling and monitoring capabilities.

Canadair firefighting airplane from the rescEU fleet positioned in Italy that operating in Portugal – July 2022
(©Italian Civil Protection, 2022)

When the general public thinks of rescEU they might associate it with fire protection or CBRN logistics from a humanitarian perspective, but the actual strategic component of rescEU tends to go a bit more unnoticed. For instance, rescEU has also been closely monitoring the development of the monkeypox crisis. In the event of another pandemic or other serious health threats, what would the role of rescEU be?

There is a difference between civil protection and humanitarian aid, which come under the same roof in DG ECHO. rescEU is a civil protection tool enabling state to state support while ECHO provides humanitarian aid only through its partner organizations, such as United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations in respect of humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. 

Under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM), rescEU provides surge capacity in areas ranging from forest fires to CBRN, from shelters to MEDEVAC to energy and transport to name a few. 

CBRN rescEU reserves are 100 % funded by the European Commission. They can be deployed anywhere in the EU and beyond but have been created primarily for the benefit of the EU countries.

To answer your question, rescEU can be seen as one of the toolboxes that the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) can mobilize. When a Member State asks for assistance, the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) will first check whether help is available from other Member States, either as ad hoc offers, or from the European Civil Protection Pool (ECPP), which includes over 80 capabilities including specialized teams and equipment. These capabilities have been pre-committed to the EU after becoming available nationally. Finally, if everything else is not viable or it is insufficient, the ERCC will turn to rescEU capabilities. 

Therefore, in case of a serious cross-border threat, the ERCC could mobilize ECPP capabilities such as Emergency Medical Teams, CBRN detection teams and mobile labs. Additionally, rescEU strategic reserves of medical countermeasures and CBRN response equipment could be mobilized, and MEDEVAC operations could support the evacuation of critical patients to safety.

Increasingly from 2023, rescEU CBRN decontamination and CBRN detection, sampling, identification, and monitoring capabilities will hit the implementation phase. In addition, more comprehensive CBRN strategic reserves will be set up in cooperation with the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (DG HERA). These will include medical countermeasures such as antidotes, antibiotics, and other therapeutics; critical care equipment (e.g., ventilators, ECMO, non-invasive ventilation devices); and CBRN response commodities such as decontamination showers, radiometers, testing equipment, chemical detectors and so on. 

In early March 2022, citizens living in countries such as Belgium, Croatia, Romania, and Poland rushed to their pharmacies to buy iodine tablets, sold out in a matter of days or even hours. We are currently watching with concern news on the explosions near the Zaphorizhzhia nuclear power plant. Bearing that in mind, what is the message you would like to convey to EU citizens regarding overall CBRN and, specifically, radiological threats?

As the Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said: ‘No nuclear power plant should ever be used as a war theatre. It is unacceptable that civilian lives are put in danger’, which is regrettably what has been happening on a rolling base in Ukraine.

Under the UCPM, close to 9 million potassium iodide tablets have been sent to Ukraine and many more are available in stock under rescEU in the EU. Today the EU continues to be the largest donor in the nuclear safety area with close to EUR 50 million in assistance including medical countermeasures, radiometric instruments, personal protective equipment, critical medical supplies, and decontamination provisions.

Under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, any country can request assistance to the Emergency Response Coordination Centre. Should there be no response to a request from the EU, the ERCC can ask for the mobilization of rescEU strategic stock.

rescEU generators being transported from the EU Civil Protection Hub in Romania on the way to Ukraine – December 2022
©Departamentul pentru Situaţii de Urgenţă, 2022

Is rescEU seeking to expand its reserve capabilities elsewhere in Europe (e.g Norwegian plane ready to transport high-infectious disease patients)?

All rescEU capabilities are geographically distributed across Europe. For example, rescEU medical stockpiles are set up in Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia and Sweden. Beyond the 27, capabilities can also be hosted by UCPM Participating States, which are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia and Türkiye. For example, Norway hosts rescEU capabilities for the transport of high-infectious disease patients. 

As far as CBRN is concerned, in early 2022 grants were signed with Croatia, Germany and Spain for the development of CBRN capabilities tackling decontamination of infrastructure, vehicles, buildings, equipment and mass decontamination for EUR 66.8 million. As of Q1 2023, comprehensive rescEU CBRN reserves will be additionally developed for over EUR 540 million.

Finally, a call for proposals is currently open to invite Member States to apply for the development of detection, identification, sampling and monitoring capabilities and mobile laboratories comprising specialized teams and equipment.

Beyond CBRN, further rescEU capabilities are under development such as energy, transport, shelters, Emergency Medical Team type 2 (EMT-2) and Specialized Care Teams as well as forest fire-fighting planes.

In which ways is the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) cooperating with NATO? 

The Emergency Response Coordination Center (ERCC) works closely with NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC). Considering the respective lessons learned related to COVID-19 as well as the implications of the war in Ukraine, coordination takes place through regular meetings on operations including latest needs and gaps, latest offers, and medical evacuations.

One further example of cooperation is with the NATO JCBRN Centre of Excellence, which this year for the first time opened its doors to the UCPM CBRN experts from EU Member States in the context of the annual CBRN consequence management course in Vyskov, Czech Republic.

What are the general trends that you currently observe in the CBRN industry, e.g., more multifunctional products, more user-friendly equipment, and how can the CBRN industry support rescEU and actively participate in its betterment? 

Under rescEU the Commission funds high technology readiness level (TRL) solutions and normally medical countermeasures that are already approved in the EU. Given the novel nature of CBRN threats and the need to innovate notably in C and B detection and identification, rescEU has also funded lower TRL components and medical countermeasures that did not already have marketing authorizations in the EU. 

Over time we have exchanged with hundreds of companies. Every time we have gained insights into new technologies, but we have also reflected together on supply chain constraints and opportunities – information that for example helped us refine rotation strategies in stockpiles and maintenance requirements for sensitive equipment.  

Companies do not have a commercial relationship with the Commission in the sense that orders are typically submitted directly by civil protection national authorities. Even so, more exchanges with the EU CBRN industrial cluster(s) will be welcome to reflect together on the impact of the overall rescEU CBRN procurement on the EU industry and on the potential constraints and opportunities to take into consideration going forward.

Which tasks is rescEU carrying out on a regular basis in coordination with member states to speed up a response should any requests assistance to the European Response Coordination Centre (which mobilizes resources from the rescEU emergency reserves)?

There is very little ‘regular’ in our work. rescEU, which is a preparedness tool, has been heavily put to the test in the last 2 years first with Covid-19 and then now with the invasion of Ukraine. The first request for assistance from Ukraine arrived to the ERCC on 15 February – 9 days before the beginning of the war. Since then, the ERCC has received 126 requests for assistance and channeled over 80,000 tonnes of assistance from 31 countries to Ukraine. 

The ERCC has mobilized rescEU strategic reserves several times while more equipment and medical countermeasures have been procured to secure a stock of relevant CBRN contingencies under rescEU. So far, potassium iodide tablets, antidotes, decontamination supplies, personal protective equipment, chemical detectors, and intensive care unit equipment comprising oxygen concentrators, bronchodilators, ventilators have been additionally procured and partially mobilized to Ukraine by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre.

Polish firefighters in France – August 2022 (© Piotr Nowak, 2022)

What is the end result envisaged by rescEU? Which outcome would you like to see from now until 2027?

By that time the EU will be able to rely on a robust rescEU fleet of capabilities bridging the EU’s gaps in the most diverse emergency areas. As part of the implementation of about EUR 800 million in CBRN response capabilities and strategic reserves, an unprecedented number of operators will have been trained to work as part of EU teams to decontaminate critical infrastructure, provide mass decontamination, detect toxic agents, and surveil large areas. This is important as it will allow the EU to pool its CBRN expertise even more and build stronger preparedness systems.

Very concretely and to make an example, during major public events such as the UEFA football cup or the Olympic Games, rescEU will be able to offer better CBRN protection. Finally, rescEU will have contributed to building more interoperable CBRN systems across the EU.

About the interviewee:

Dr Antonella Cavallo is the Technical Lead for the development of EU CBRN capabilities under rescEU at the European Commission in Brussels. As part of her role, Antonella has supported the response to the Covid pandemic and coordinated assistance to Ukraine of CBRN equipment and medical countermeasures including by liaising with US government agencies and international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Atomic Energy.

Related articles

Recent articles