The Belgian first aid and support team (B-FAST)

by Lieutenant-Colonel Hans De Smet and Professor Dr. Ir. Jan Leysen, Belgian Royal Military Academy.

Background

As a nation, Belgium has the obligation to extend help to countries that are hit by a disaster and ask for international relief. In this context, when major earthquakes struck north-western Turkey in 1999 (the Izmit earthquake of August 17 causing death to more than 17,000 people, and the Düzce earthquake of November 12 causing nearly 1,000 fatalities), Belgium was on both occasions among the first countries to provide assistance.

Although both operations, which were very much appreciated by Turkey and the international community, can be considered as very successful, the Belgian Government found it necessary to set up a permanent framework for international aid and support, allowing to mobilize emergency teams very quickly at any time, and to send them abroad to countries hit by a disaster. On November 10, 2000, the Belgian Federal Council of Ministers approved the creation of such a rapid response structure which has been legalized by the Royal Decree of February 28, 2003, regarding the creation of a coordination board with regard to emergency relief in foreign countries, and of B-FAST as a supporting permanent service.

B-FAST is a federal interdepartmental structure under the authority of the Coordination Board, presided by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (MFA). An organization chart is given in the figure below.

Picture1Figure 1: Organizational Chart

Procedure to start a mission

When a country asks for relief, the president of the B-FAST Secretariat (the permanent body of the organization) convenes the Planning Committee (responsible for strategic support) and the Advisory Committee (experts and representatives from NGOs) in order to prepare a proposal for a B-FAST mission. The proposal will be presented to the Coordination Board and when there is a consensus, the Council of Ministers has to take the final decision to start the mission.

A B-FAST mission is possible if the three following conditions are met:

  • A major disaster has stricken a foreign country in a way that its own emergency management organizations are not able to manage the situation and, the security or well-being of the population is jeopardized.
  • The country must not be the scene of any armed conflict.
  • The authorities of the foreign country have to ask for assistance from Belgium, either by bilateral diplomatic means, or by means of the international community (i.e. when the authorities of the stricken country indicate that they accept international relief).

Each B-FAST mission is a priori limited to a period of 10 days. This limitation has been consciously introduced in the Royal Decree to indicate that a B-FAST mission is about providing initial emergency relief. If necessary, the Coordination Board can decide to extend the duration of the operation.

Since speed is very important in the event of an emergency situation, the participating teams must be mobilized within 12 hours of the decision to intervene.

A modular approach

Regardless of the type of disaster, initial emergency relief operations are very much alike, which permits the establishment of a standardized approach. Besides, several different partners are involved in a B-FAST mission. For that reason, the Belgian authorities decided in favor of a modular approach consisting of one basic module providing several generic and multidisciplinary functions (e.g., mission leadership, logistical support, medical support, communication, security and administration &budget), which will be completed by one or more specific modules (e.g., Airdrop, CBRN, inundations, storms, field hospital, etc.). The advantage of such a modular approach is that all tasks and functions can be properly planned and trained in advance.

B-FAST administers an annual budget which is approved by the Coordination Board. Approximately 65% of the budget covers costs related to operations, including the training of B-FAST personnel and maintenance of the vehicles used during training and operations. The remaining 35% are used for investments is resources and consumable resources.

The staff engaged in the B-BAST operations comes from different public services (Foreign and Internal Affairs, Public Health and Defense) sometimes complemented by personnel coming from international organizations and NGOs.