INTERVIEW: Everyone has a role to play in civil protection

He knows the Civil Protection Department since its inception, having worked his way up the ranks and appointed Director General five years ago. Described as the man who changed the Civil Protection Department from an understaffed unit to a well-equipped, pro-active, disciplined force, ready for all eventualities. Emanuel Psaila tells that civil protection does not depend solely on the CPD, but everyone has a role to play to ensure safety and security in society.

How long have you been working at the CPD?

I’ve been working here since the very beginning of the Department, back in 1998 as I was part of the first group of recruits. In fact, I took the oath of office on February 15, 1999 and became an Assistant & Rescue Officer. When I applied, I was already working in the public service. I started as an apprentice in 1986 and worked my way up step by step to reach the position I am in today.

What does this job mean to you?

It means everything to me. The job itself offers a different challenge every day, and an opportunity to help people. Throughout the years I have witnessed the Department’s evolution and I lived through the hardship when it did not offer proper conditions to its workers. That’s why I decided to roll-up my sleeves and work towards improving workers’ rights as I am a firm believer that if you want something done you need to work for it rather than wait for things to change on their own.

In fact, for 16 years I was part of the committee for the Association of the Civil Protection Department, 14 years of which I served as President. Back then, CPD officials did not have the conditions they have today. We were expected to work at the level of a disciplined force however, we did not enjoy the same benefits, such as the 25 years of service. I was determined to change this and I’m proud to say that today, conditions have drastically improved.

Today, workers are eligible for a pension after 25 years of service. They have the right to form part of a trade union of their choice. They are all insured against injury on duty and there has been a significant improvement in wages. All this was sealed with the signing of a collective agreement in 2020, which was the first of its kind in over 20 years.  It was a long road but I’m proud of what we have managed to achieve.

This time of year is not easy for members of the CPD. You encourage others to stay home in bad weather while you go out to save others. What goes through your mind as you leave for work in the morning?

Every Monday morning as I drive to work I always pray that come what may, I have the strength and ability to lead in the best manner possible. The control room informs me of any upcoming bad weather which allows me to adjust plans and strategies accordingly. There are circumstances when I have to focus solely on the operations and push administrative issues to the backburner in order to deal with the crisis at hand.

When we ask the public to stay inside it means that the dangers are great.

When we ask the public to stay inside it means that the dangers are great. I worry because having served as a fire-fighter myself, I know the dangers my staff deal with not only during storms but in any emergency. I know what risks they face, the dangers at hand. I worry not only for them but also for their families.

How does work vary from summer to winter? How many requests for assistance do you get per day as an average?

The Department receives around 15 calls for assistance every day, which is an average of 5,500 calls every year. However, the workload varies according to the season. Statistics show that our busiest time is in the summer months when grass fires and rubbish fires increase drastically. On the other hand, winter months are usually quieter. Yet, most requests for assistance tend to be more serious especially when a storm hits the islands.

For instance, during a typical summer day CPD receives around 20 to 25 calls for assistance whereas in winter we get around 11 to 18 calls. However, during a storm a station can receive up to 50 calls in just one day.

The Department receives around 15 calls for assistance every day. During a storm, a station can receive up to 50 calls in 1 day.

In the past few years, we have seen unprecedented investment in equipment. How would you describe this change from where we were years ago to today?

Having served in the Department since its inception helped me to identify and act immediately on the Department’s main wounds. The strategic plan drawn up together with the team was well-founded and well-researched. We presented it to the highest institutions, and we started addressing the problems.

What does the plan entail?

The plan is based on 4 pillars: changing the fleet; meeting human resources standards, both in Assistance & Rescue, as well as administratively; increasing and improving training opportunities, both specialised and technical; and having a more organised structure. These four pillars must go hand in hand.

That’s why we started to change the fleet and look for other equipment. We addressed shortcomings that were identified following the 2019 heavy storm that hit Malta.

In the past five years we have seen a €10 million investment, and this will continue in the coming years. We’re not only changing our old vehicles, but we have adapted to new realities. We introduced small fire engines to enter village cores, brought in state-of-the-art industrial fire engines, two turntable ladders, and we will soon welcome Malta’s biggest ever hydraulic platform, which will reach 70 metres. We have new fork lifters, specialised vans for divers, drones and lighting, high quality modern dinghy, rotating telehandlers, large generators and other machinery never seen before in the Department.

We will soon welcome Malta’s biggest ever hydraulic platform, which will reach 70 metres.

We’re also investing in the divers section within the Maritime Unit, and next year we will be introducing a fireboat from Norway and another dinghy. Next year the Civil Protection Department will see the introduction of more new vehicles of all sizes, shapes and types.

We’ve seen the same level of investment in human resources. How big is the fleet today and how much importance is given to training?

Human resources is another key pillar in the department. You can’t just have vehicles and equipment but you have to have trained people who know how to use the machinery, to put out fires, to rescue people. 2019 marked the largest recruitment in the history of Civil Protection, when 128 new recruits were engaged. By then the Force had dropped to just 140 workers and therefore we managed to double the workforce. That said, we have not yet reached the number identified in studies that have been carried out and we are currently working with the authorities to achieve these goals.

Times have changed and so have the requirements, so you need to continuously invest in training to keep up to date. And this is something which authorities have recognised, as they increased the budget allocation for training.

Today we have:

  • 9 basic first aid instructors who will ensure that every worker in the Department has the basic knowledge;
  • 6 rope access instructors and 30 others already trained at an advanced stage;
  • another instructor within the dog section;
  • 16 workers with basic drone training, 3 of them at an advanced level;
  • 16 qualified risk assessors with a British diploma;
  • 105 people who participated in theoretical training on high rise buildings, and 60 furthered their training with practical exercises;
  • 150 people who are trained in helicopter fire and rescue;
  • 15 new life savers for beach patrol;
  • 30 people who participated in a diving and rescue diving course;
  • 100 people who were licensed to drive fork lifters and machinery hydraulics;
  • 60 people who participated in a ‘train the trainer’ course;
  • 20 people who were specifically trained in extreme weather conditions in Canada;
  • 35 people who were trained in intensity searches by Canadian personnel in Malta.

To this list we must add new courses introduced for the first time for Leading Assistance & Rescue Officer and Station Officers, in-house training, truck licenses, maritime licenses and other courses such as those provided by Sedqa, Institute for the Public Service and the Employee Support Programme.

Our work continues and I can tell you that next year’s training schedule is almost full and we have already started to look at 2023.

Next year’s training schedule is almost full and we have already started to look at 2023.

Our country is small and resources are limited. From your experience with colleagues from other countries, how do we compare in terms of preparedness to face major incidents?

One thing is for sure, whatever you do is never enough. Countries such as Japan and the United States faced difficult situations due to natural and man-made disasters, despite being among the most well-equipped.

We have still not reached the desired level and this is due to a number of factors. Among these is the limited human resources in Malta, in terms of specialised personnel. Departments in other countries are assisted by outsourced experts, but we have to do everything in house. That said, I must say that as a country, we have come a long way on the health and safety of our citizens.

Risk plans and contingency plans are continuously being designed and discussed with all major stakeholders within the Civil Protection Council in order to plan the best coordinated response in emergencies.

At the same time, not everything depends on the Civil Protection Department. Everyone must play a part, from students, to businesses and companies, shops and government entities. Everyone knows the basics, we just need to be more altruistic and to think first about our safety and how to protect it.

Everyone knows the basics, we just need to be more altruistic and to think first about our safety and how to protect it.

How important are simulations and how close are they to real life incidents? What does it involve to organise them?

Whatever plan you have must be tested and improved. These exercises are thoroughly analysed and studied to ensure the best possible protection in case of an emergency. They involve great preparation and I go back to the point I mentioned earlier on the lack of human resources.

The Tsunami simulation has been in preparation for more than two years, by only one officer who had to juggle this task along with other duties. The same with the tower evacuation simulation which was prepared over 3 years. We are waiting for the results of this exercise but it seems that there is room for improvement in the operation because this is something new.

We must continue to adapt to new realities. We must train and prepare ourselves to continue to offer safety and protection.

Are there more simulations planned in the near future?

Our objective is to conduct a national exercise every two years involving all entities. We’re planning another high-rise evacuation simulation in October next year as well as two EU co-financed projects. In January, 17 CPD members will be travelling to Canada for another training programme in extreme weather conditions.

In recent days we have seen, among other things, the investment made in the 112 Coordination Centre and the 112 technology. How will this aid your work?

This €2 million investment helps us become more effective. The Emergency Deployment Management System uses Artificial Intelligence to help us establish which vehicle is suitable for a particular accident, which ones are available and which station is nearest. Coordinates are sent from the control room directly to the fire engine to minimise theresponse time.

The system will also identify specific crucial locations such as firework factories, fuel stations, large water reservoirs and other useful information.

How would you describe the relationship and coordination between CPD and other law enforcement entities?

It’s an excellent relationship. Not only do we work together on a daily basis, particularly in emergencies, but as I already explained, regular meetings are held to discuss our strategies and coordination.

There’s always room for improvement, but what matters most is our ultimate purpose, and that is to save lives, to help and assist in any emergency. If we continue to improve our operations, we will surely be in a position to provide an even better service to the people of Malta.

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