Interview with José Manuel Duarte Costa President ANEPC
Welcome us to the sound of “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky, who celebrates “the defeat of Napoleon’s troops at the entrance of Moscow”, in the office he has occupied for year and a half as president of the National Emergency Authority and Civil Protection (ANEPC).
José Manuel Duarte Costa, 60 years old, is a military in front of a civil house. He joined the ANEPC in 2018 as national commander. First “it was strange and then he got in,” he admits. At the end of year two he rose to president of ANEPC.
How do you respond to criticism of being a military man in front of a civilian house?
Military are prepared to achieve objectives. When I arrived here, I drew a set of goals that included a new design of the operational structure in the field and decision support methodologies that were urgently needed. I gave this house leadership. I met with all the commanders of fire brigades in the first two months and I got out of office to know the people in the program.
Do you feel like a conciliator?
Those who have these responsibilities cannot be sectarian, factious or protagonist. We have to be bridge builders, reach consensus and open doors for discussion. The backbone of Civil Protection are the volunteer firefighters and I have established a good relationship with the League and with Commander Jaime Marta Soares.
You must be the first president of the ANEPC that is not criticized by the president of the League.
We discuss frankly and fairly and we try to find a compromise. The winners are the institutions and, above all, the Portuguese
What has changed since 2017 as among the failures identified by the Independent Technical Commission was the lack of coordination and lack of professionalism by the forces on the ground?
The reports that followed the 2017 fires identified a set of goals that had to be achieved to improve the system in terms of structural prevention, of surveillance and of combat. The latest report by the Observatory (OTI) does not make major reproofs to the civil protection authority, maybe because it was easier to make the changes here. What still needs to be done is at the prevention level, that is, the land registers, the forest management and land consolidation to endow the territory with a more resilient and attractive forest in terms of economic production.
Emphasize two or three things that have changed in these four years?
A Changed the SMS-based population alert system; the Safe Villages Safe People program was created, which makes these populations more resilient; we started to have thermal imaging of the theatre of operations and a whole technology to support the decision of who is in the command of operations.
Q Are the SIRESP failures over?
There was a lot of work from ANEPC with SIRESP, SA to solve the problems. SIRESP has been a key tool for the geolocation. The capacity of the network with broadband and connection to satellite was doubled, and generators were used for the case of antenna current failures and more mobile antennas were acquired.
How do you assess this year’s fires?
We had half of the occurrences and about 65% less burned area compared to the last ten years. And if we take 2017 out of these numbers, we have 56% less burned area. We reduced the ignitions by about 50% but we still have a high number: from 1 of January to August 31 we had about seven thousand occurrences and we managed to stop 98% of the fires almost at the start. There were 140 fires left with the potential to transform themselves into large fires…
Two of these were those of Castro Marim and Monchique. What is the reason for having larger fires in the Algarve?
It has to do with the weather conditions and the type of vegetation very dry and solid in the Algarve, with the capacity to release very high energy. In Castro Marim nearly six thousand hectares were burned, but it could have been 20 thousand hectares burned, so it’s good success rate despite being terrible for the environment and for the people who lost their homes and possessions.
Did the weather help?
A Yes, but weather cannot be a critical success factor. In 2019 and 2020 we had the same rates of performance and it was very complicated years, with higher temperatures and higher dryness rates in the territory and we were able to handle it, we and all the agents in the system. Today, fires release a much higher energy than they did before. I object to people thinking that, with fewer occurrences, we can have a smallest deployment capacity.
The Court of Auditors (Tribunal de Contas) and AGIF have talked about the need to present cost-benefit accounts about each fire operation. Why don’t these accounts show up?
We are working, in coordination with AGIF, on a good governance of the system so that, together with various entities, we can do this presentation of accounts. We know how much the device costs, the problem is knowing the cost of the burnt area and the cost of what we avoided being burned.
The investment made in prevention has been brought closer to what it is made in combat. But the combat is more visible, right?
I think it’s almost halfway through. I would even say that it should be 99% for prevention and 1% for combat. The solution to large fires is not in combat. Combat is more visible and produces security faster. But the effective safety of people, of the environment and animals we can only achieve with prevention, planning forestry, making the forest economically viable for the populations. That work is being done, but it takes time. While this hiatus unfolds of time we have to have a combat system that can fill the gaps that prevention has.
The lack of professionalism of firefighters is also criticized. Is that changing?
A .The national school of firefighters is extremely professional. Portugal sets a great example to other countries in the Mediterranean basin with this array of volunteer firefighters, an unshakable force for civil protection. And we have a special force of very specialized firefighters who work as the regime’s protection guard.
We are a country vulnerable to extreme events aggravated by the climate crisis, such as floods, rising sea water levels, storms. Are we prepared to face them? What are you afraid of?
I fear everything I can’t control. And there’s a lot that I can’t control. But we have teams prepared to act to several occurrences. For example, in the floods from Mondego we were able to predict the risk areas and we articulate with the municipalities and with the Portuguese Environment Agency to evacuate populations from the flood areas and control discharges from the dams and the breakage of dikes to contain the avalanche of water. And there was zero casualties.
Q Would we be prepared for an event like the torrential rains that devastated Germany?
Nobody is prepared for extreme events. The work that the Germany had done was not enough and now they are reviewing their protocols. We are preparing ourselves for any situation that may occur.
If an earthquake like the one in 1755 happened tomorrow we would be prepared?
An earthquake that occurs in the same location and with the same intensity as that of 1755 takes ten minutes to reach Lisbon, and the body of water arrives in 30 minutes. You can’t evacuate two millions of people in ten minutes. There are emergency plans to evacuate populations from the Baixa Pombalina (downtown Lisbon) to higher locations in Lisbon. For much well prepared as we were, an earthquake like the one in 1755 would be too complicated.