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Duarte da Costa “Combat is not a solution to fires, it is prevention. There are no fool proof systems”


Interview with Brigadier General Durate da Costa President of the ANEPC by DN published 28th May 2021

He has chaired the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority for six months, before he was operational commander. He says that “we are not free from a combination of means” like the one that occurred in the great fires of 2017, but “we are better prepared”.

Command, ranger and parachutist. Brigadier-general, made a career in the army where he completed the courses of the three special troops, commanded the independent airborne brigade, was chief of staff of the rapid reaction brigade, commander of the paratroopers’ regiment. He has a long and decorated military curriculum. At the National Authority for Emergency and Civil Protection, where he arrived in 2018, he was operational commander, and has now been the president of the organization for six months.

In his inauguration, he defined the image of Civil Protection as one of the fundamental vectors of his mandate. Because?
I established three fundamental vectors. First, to continue to be a credible answer to the whole effect in what is the security of the Portuguese. Another, people, in fact, the first vector was even that of people. And the third one I chose was that of the image, because I learned at my own expense, through all the work I had as a national commander since 2018, that a good image of a civil protection system takes a long time to build. And it can spoil very quickly.

The problem is not just the difficulty of building a good image, but the vicissitude of the fact that an uncontrolled event can ruin an entire image of an institution that works to be an example. Therefore, we have to be very careful about how we can manage this image of authority. It is not an image to sell. It is an image that interests the Portuguese to have confidence in their National Authority for Emergency and Civil Protection and to have confidence in the civil protection system. A society in which its citizens see themselves in what are active citizenship projects, linked to civil protection, is very important to give precisely that serenity to people.

We are not free from the various risks to which we are subject, namely at this time, with fire risks. We are doing everything we can and cannot do to have an insurance system. It is very important to give precisely that serenity to people. We are not free from the various risks to which we are subject, namely at this time, with fire risks. We are doing everything we can and cannot do to have an insurance system. It is very important to give precisely that serenity to people. We are not free from the various risks to which we are subject, namely at this time, with fire risks. We are doing everything we can and cannot do to have an insurance system.

In this concern with the image of Civil Protection, therefore, what happened in 2017 does not fit? Or lawsuits such as the anti-smoking collar that, among the defendants, has its predecessor, General Mourato Nunes?

I would say that everything contributes to an image project that we want to have from the authority itself … parameterizing each of the factors that I have already said. 2017 was a civic start for all of us. I do not think there will be a single day when, when we plan the response for the fire season, we do not remember 2017. And, therefore, we should not forget. In fact it is one of the things I am always saying, to my system and to the people who work with me: we cannot forget 2017. And, therefore, this may have been the condition to definitely invest in a different way and in integrative, participatory, and planned way of what is the response system to rural fires.

On the other hand, the case of collars … the case of collars is only an episodic case. Although, at the time, I was a national commander and have no responsibility for the project to acquire the collars, these were seen, at the time, only as a means of disseminating an image. They are anti-smoking collars. And therefore, I think there was an over-evaluation of what was an episodic project. If you ask me if 2017 has a big influence on the image that a civilian system has, 2017 is definitely that episode that has a project and that associates an image-building project that we all have to work on.

“There are no infinite resources to have a firefighter behind each tree. There is the ability to plan, to put firefighters where they are needed, through risks and weather conditions.”

It defined two other fundamental vectors for the mandate: the people and resources of the civil protection system. With what goals?
I would start with resources. I, as a military man, always got used to working and fulfilling missions with what I have and not with what I would like to have. And therefore, I try to make a plan regarding the working conditions that I have. The various systems are the systems that support civil protection, communication, monitoring, surveillance and reconnaissance. What I have to do is, with my collaborators and who work with me every day in what is the pursuit of a civil protection project, to get the best results from what we have.

Can you ask me the question “would you like to have more?” We would all like to have more. But we know that resources are scarce. The country has other priorities. In terms of resources, my goals are, at least, not to lose what I have, continue to operate with the systems I have, increase decision support systems – and that was one of the big differences from 2017 to now, it was an investment that we have made in what is decision support and the capacity we have to know the what is happening on the ground, where and who is involved, through geolocation, aerial reconnaissance that, for example, we always have at the time of fires with two planes with thermal cameras and visual cameras giving us the real image of the what’s going on.

The appearance of people is perhaps the most important aspect. In addition to those who work for the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority, the system also has more than 90% of the people who are part of the system and are not in authority. We have the volunteer firefighters who are elements of the backbone of what is the civil protection system. Whether for those who are part of the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority system or for all civil protection agents, but especially for voluntary firefighters, I have to have a vision of what I want to do in terms of their ability to response to the system. But also to give prospects for improving life, career, training.

And how do you intend to do that?
Internally, finalize a process that is subject to legislative changes and that has to do with the finalization of the precarious conditions in the Authority. We had three groups of precarious workers, some who were technicians and who worked within the headquarters, our operators and firefighters, or rather, the members of the special civil protection force. For the technicians it was a process that we have already finished. It is being integrated into the framework. We still need to integrate the operators, who are real agents who participate in what is the importance of civil protection itself. It is a process that is being finalized. And they will be integrated, respecting what they have guaranteed at the moment. None of this is in danger. I have felt all the support of the tutelage in this matter, either from the State Secretariat for Internal Administration or from the Ministry of Internal Administration itself, and I think that this matter will soon be concluded. Regarding the agents of the system, training, and a lot of technical, specialized, certified training.

What has changed substantially after the great fires that occurred in 2017?
Our future began precisely at the beginning of 2018, when my predecessor, to whom I pay my tribute and respect, started this work, supported by the national commander, who was my own function, and who, as president, I continue to say that we continue to invest to improve the system. The system is a credible system. The Portuguese can have confidence. It is a system that is different from the 2017 system. The first major change is in the matter of acquiring operational information. In the past, until 2017, we had a very incipient model for the acquisition of operational information from theatres.

We worked a lot by letter, by map and today we have electronic systems, which allow us to have a real view of what is happening on the ground. Quick capture, which sends this information to us with metadata and with geo-referencing for the commands themselves. It allows us to see what is happening on the ground, it allows us to geolocate, through the SIRESP network, to know who is on the ground and it allows those who have to make the decision to allocate resources to immediately move necessary initial means. On the other hand, the ability to quickly pre-position resources through planning. For example, this weekend we learned that the risk situation was going to be more pronounced in the Algarve region, we removed some aerial means that were focused to the north and transported those means there. Where did we have fires? Castro Marim.

We also have a more integrative posture, we cannot command from a distance, we must command with proximity and be close to people. Another factor: contingency plans. We have already done it for Covid, we are always doing it for the issue of fires. We have also invested a lot in technology associated with the communications part. Nowadays the SIRESP network is much more capable, has redundancy allows us to do planning work. About SIRESP, when, in 2018, we had the Leslie problem, the only way to talk to the operational staff, and even with the mayors who were in the Figueira area, was through SIRESP. Neither cell phone nor landline, nothing else worked except SIRESP. At Leslie we had to call liaison officers from EDP and the SIRESP network to see if there was a power failure, a fall in medium and low voltage poles in certain areas and we know that we have six hours for the antennas to work. There are no absolute systems. We have to work with the systems and enhance the best the system has. And it has been a good system.

The Court of Auditors, in a recent audit, came to say that the measures that were decided after the 2017 fires had not yet been implemented. Are you concerned that four years has not been enough?

We are talking about fundamental measures. But if you read the report carefully, and to which I dedicated a large part of my time, the first observation is that at the level of combat and at the level of the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority, the repairs are not of great importance. Are small. It is said that there has been a constant effort to acquire a capacity for a timely and rapid response.

The problem is upstream. Let us not believe that fighting is the solution to the problems of fires in Portugal. It is not. It is part of the answer we have to give, but the solution is prevention. And the prevention and management of forest space, and that is where the report focuses and very vehemently on what is the problem of our forest that is where there must be, increasingly, an even greater and more permanent investment.

Hence my question. Is worried?
They are all processes that take a long time. Managing and modifying the forest is not something that can be done in one year, nor in ten years. Prevention itself and the behaviours of active citizenship – I am always hitting this key – takes time. I recall that the seat belt campaign in Portugal took ten years to take effect. There is a space for maturity that prevention itself must have. I would like to have a button where I click and say: no, upstream everything is solved. I am aware that it is not. That is why every year we have to invest and prepare, with great caution, what is the special device for fighting rural fires. That is why we present the device and invest in the device itself, always based on the risk cards. And there we always have the system to respond as best as possible. There are no fool proof systems and it is not worth saying that there are fool proof systems. There are no infinite resources for having a fireman behind each tree. There is the ability to plan, to put firefighters where they are needed, according to the risks and weather conditions.

One of the Court of Auditors’ repairs concerns the old issue of the six heavy Kamov bomber helicopters, which remain inoperable. And that have not yet been transferred to the Air Force. Will these helicopters still fly again?
I don’t know what the future is. Especially because the decision, through a resolution of the Council of Ministers, is that these helicopters will pass to the direct management of the Air Force. And, therefore, it is not up to me to see if they will fly, because I do not know if they will fly or not. Now what is up to me is to have means to replace those that are stopped.

And do you have these means?
And that is what was done in what is the design of aerial means and when we arrived at the pursuit of saying “now we have 60 aerial means”, which, as you notice, there has been an increase since 2018. It seems to us that it is an adapted number for risk conditions.

We returned to SIRESP. The contract with Altice ends at the end of June and will be extended. But a definitive solution seems to take time. Is SIRESP a concern for you?

No. As I said, I have had all the support of the Minister of Internal Affairs in what is the achievement of the means that I need for the system. And so far everything that I thought was necessary has always been provided. And one of the things that is always needed is the capacity of an information system that allows, on the one hand, communication between entities and, on the other hand, geolocation. What has always been guaranteed to me by my ministry is that the system will be active, as it has been active. SIRESP is the system I have to communicate and to geolocate. It is a system that has to be based on planning. There are no fool proof systems. If you ask me what is the system that would be infallible in the scope of communications, there is not. And we know that. SIRESP is not what concerns me, from the moment I am assured that it will continue, I have no problems. I live well with SIRESP and I continue to say that in 2018 it was the only way I had to talk to operational staff and mayors, where no other system worked. And SIRESP, at that time, worked. And it has worked. Up to this point I can assure you that, in the three years that I have been in the system, I have never had a single problem with SIRESP.

The high voltage lines, the lack of cleanliness of the corridors they pass through, were also at the origin of the fires of Pedrógão and Monchique. Does this problem worry you?

Regarding the medium and low voltage lines – and even the high voltage lines – with REN, with the former EDP Distribuição and with its former president, I expressed my concerns about cleaning and EDP, in the height, always responded with skill. Always being subject to the weightlessness of what are the issues related to a line that breaks, to an accident that there is of a tractor that hits a certain pole and that throws it to the ground, they are imponderable. But that is why the system has to be credible. That is why the system has a set of means to respond even to these situations. And I have had a good response from REN and EDP Distribuição.

For the critical period, from June 1 to September 30, the rural firefighting device foresees about 12 thousand operatives, the highest number ever. Is it a sign that you expect a difficult summer?

At the end of 2018, I was very happy that it was one of the years in which we had fewer fires and less burnt area. And an old, experienced volunteer firefighter said to me: “The national commander is not so happy, that what hasn’t burned this year next year is ready to burn.” This is the first part of my answer. There has also been work on forest management, prevention, and what is certain is that, compared to the average of the last ten years, we have half the number of fires and burnt areas. This means anything. But the fuel is still there. And therefore, I cannot rest with my assessment of past performance.

Regarding what is expected this year, the system is built on the basis of a risk chart and, as we say in military planning, we always take care of the most likely modality, but we always take care of the most dangerous. And more dangerous is to have a set of situations that can, due to weather conditions and the availability of fuel, have a very complicated day. The 7th of August last year was very complicated, in which we had 158 fires all over the country. And in 158 we had three big fires and the system responded. So what do I want? It is having a system that can respond.

Is it possible to guarantee that the country will never again be faced with a tragedy like that of 2017?

What happened in 2017 and the reports I read – as I said, was not in the system – was a very special situation. There was a combination of means, both in June and in October, and we are not free that this combination of means may occur, but it is very rare and very exceptional. But there are things that we are preferably better at.

We have a prevention and information system for the population, which we did not have at that time. This year, with the issues of covid and other risks, we have already issued around 20 million SMS – something that did not exist in 2017. In 2017, we did not have a system for monitoring the fires and the development of the fires, so that we could have always, in the national command, the real vision of what is happening on the ground. We did not have a communication network with SIRESP and with all the redundancies of batteries, satellite capacity and mobile antennas. And therefore, with great caution, I would say that we are always subject to what exceptional situations may occur. We have to be prepared and not let the events take care of the system, but it must be the system to take care of the events. Ask me “is it the ideal system?” There is a lot to do. There is always a lot to do. But we are working gradually to be able to be there.

Regarding what happened in 2017, I honestly think we are better prepared. We have to be prepared and not let the events take care of the system, but it must be the system to take care of the events. Ask me “is it the ideal system?” There is a lot to do. There is always a lot to do. But we are working gradually to be able to be there. Regarding what happened in 2017, I honestly think we are better prepared. We have to be prepared and not let the events take care of the system, but it must be the system to take care of the events. Ask me “is it the ideal system?” There is a lot to do. There is always a lot to do. But we are working gradually to be able to be there. Regarding what happened in 2017, I honestly think we are better prepared.

He considers volunteer firefighters the backbone of the civil protection system. This year, firefighters involved in the fire-fighting device will receive 57 euros a day – three euros more than last year. Does it seem like a fair retribution?

As a servant of the State, I would say that contributions are never fair. We would always like to receive more. But I think it is a condition for responding to what the country can do and what the system can do, because there are more people involved. I reiterate what I said: our volunteer firefighters are truly the backbone of the system. Not only in the emergency response and relief system, but also in the other systems that provide greater capacity and resilience to the population itself. In the transportation of the sick, in the emergency, in the protection, in the help.

We have a territorial implantation of about 400 humanitarian associations of volunteer firefighters, who generate as many volunteer fire brigades, and it is a unique matrix based on a unique system: that of the voluntary firefighter. And don’t read in my words any sign of less professionalism from the volunteer firefighters. Heads up. Our volunteer firefighters, either through the qualifications they have, from the National Fire Brigade and other entities, are extremely professional, have very advanced technical and technological capacity, or are at the level of any Portuguese professional firefighter or outside Portugal. I have a lot of confidence in the volunteer firefighters. I am a strong supporter of the voluntary matrix and firefighters will always be a fundamental equation of what the civil protection system..

Can the risk of contagion of covid-19 by operational staff affect the fight against fires this year? Is it something you are predicting?
To answer your question with numbers: we have developed a contingency plan for firefighters. We supported firefighters in their defence training, not only in terms of procedures but also in terms of equipment. And in 11 thousand occurrences, in 2020, we have not reported any contagion during the occurrences. This means that the contagions that occurred – there were contagious firefighters – were not related to the occurrences of rural fires. The contingency plans meant that no firefighters had been infected in the events. That concern remains for this year. In fact, we will – perhaps today – start the acquisition of personal protective equipment to, again, distribute it to firefighters.

Civil Protection is involved in the distribution of vaccines and the creation of support structures. Is it a role you will keep? And in a state of calamity, enacted under the Basic Law for Civil Protection, do you think that the body you preside over should assume increased responsibilities in this fight?

It is stated in the law itself that these increased responsibilities may even come from what has to do with the Civil Emergency Planning itself, which is already contained in the organic law of the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority and already has its own regulation regarding the Civil Emergency Planning . I think so, that the lifting of a Civil Emergency Planning system, a greater number of tasks and responsibilities, can be given to Civil Protection. In any case, in the new regulatory decree or in the new legal provision, the Authority has always played a supporting role in the Ministry of Health and the Directorate-General for Health.

For example, in the Hospital de Santa Maria and the Hospital Garcia de Orta, in Almada, when there was a large turnout, we quickly set up an external response and screening system, which allowed us, in just over 12 hours, to move from a staff that had about 50 ambulances to stay there six or seven. This is also the job of Civil Protection. On the other hand, Civil Protection also participated, for example, in the repatriation of nationals who were in other countries, for example, it was an element of my own team for France to receive the Portuguese who came through the Portuguese State.

Therefore, I would say that Civil Protection has been acting in the first line with the firefighters, but it must also act as a back line in support of the system itself. And this is how I see it. We don’t have to stand on our toes and say no, Civil Protection is essential to the issue. Essential for the pandemic issue is the Directorate-General for Health and it is what emanates directly from the Ministry of Health.

The National Strategy for preventive Civil Protection until 2030 has already been in public consultation. In addition to fires, the most significant risks are high winds, droughts, floods and floods. These are increasingly extreme phenomena, which we have to deal with. What response does Civil Protection prepare for this new era?
If we do the risk assessment for fires, we also do the risk assessment for the areas that involve the entire response within the scope of what are the collective risks and the technological risks that we may have to face. I added one more, the earthquake, the seismic risk. What we have to do is: prepare the entities that will have response responsibilities to be trained for that response. Issue guidelines and planning so that we all know what we have to do at that time.

Can you ask me the question “then what if there is an earthquake or if there is a flood?”. If there is a flood we must have our means adapted to respond to that flood. As in the case of Baixo Mondego, where there is a whole system – not just a system of the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority – that involves other entities, the Portuguese Environment Agency, the agency that deals with hydrological resources.

I usually say that the main role of the leaders of our institutions is to generate consensus and build bridges in what are the response measures to face these risks. I would say that whether for the earthquake area or for floods or strong winds, we have to respond to extreme weather conditions – always in conjunction with the entities responsible for information, in this case the IPMA – and we are prepared to have an answer. The question you can ask is, “And will it always be effective?” Well, we tried it to be. We are always subject to weightlessness and the magnitude of the effect itself.

These extreme phenomena are directly linked to climate change. Rising sea levels are one of them. Given this scientific certainty, does it make any sense to think about building the new Lisbon airport next to the Tagus River and dependent on a bridge?
I do not have technical knowledge and we certainly have, in our country, elements with much greater technical capacity to answer this question. Now what is expected from the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority is that if an airport is built there, it will have the capacity to respond, in terms of emergency, protection and help, in order to cope with a given situation.

But aren’t these important factors?
They will be a condition for those who have to validate this process. It will not be the responsibility of the Authority to validate a process that goes beyond it within the scope of its competences. My competence is: before a footprint that I have, in relation to the institutions and the capacity of implanting institutions in the field, to respond as best as possible. Certainly, the entities that have this responsibility will read much more correctly than mine, which would be just an opinion and would certainly not be based on any condition of technological or scientific knowledge.

He spoke of the risk of an earthquake, an eternal threat in Lisbon. Every year the Civil Protection performs a simulacrum …
In Lisbon and in the Algarve, too.

And in the Algarve, too. Will the simulations be sufficient and does it really seem that the citizens are already aware of this threat?
Within the scope of citizenship duties, which are the responsibility of all citizens and civil protection is all of us, it is never enough. We must always be more ambitious and take the programs further. It is obvious that we have an awareness program regarding earthquakes and in a segment that concerns us a lot, which are schools. That is why, under the Terra Treme program, we have given great importance to the impact on primary and secondary schools and the response of children. And why children? It is with children that in 20 years’ time we will have a credible civil protection system, based on citizenship status. We have to start today with the children themselves, we have to invest a lot in our children, because they will be the citizens of tomorrow and the seed that we place today will have effects in the future. Of course, we will do other awareness programs.