Written by Heta Hyvärinen, Finnish Red Cross
In addition to the authorities, the representatives of Finnish Voluntary Rescue Service (Vapepa) organizations participated in the Vellamo exercise held in the pilot area of the OIL SPILL project in Southwest Finland from 4 to 8 May 2021. The Southwest Finland Cooperation Group of Vapepa, established during the national Volunteers in Oil Spill project (2014-2018), operates in the area. The group has also been actively implementing the activities of the OIL SPILL project and was a key part of the Vellamo exercise.
From collaboration to working together
One of the main aims of the OIL SPILL project is to develop co-operation between volunteers and authorities in oil spill response. Tommi Virtanen, who works as Head of Preparedness at the Finnish Red Cross Southwest Finland district office, represented the voluntary organizations in the exercise management group.
“Utilizing the expertise of the third sector depends most on the authority’s imagination and perhaps the courage to ask for help from these organizations. This kind of exercise increases the awareness of volunteers’ performance, which again increases its utilization, and encourages authorities to alert and contact us. The next level of co-operation is working together, which made a big leap forward during the Vellamo exercise!” Tommi comments with satisfaction that the goal has been achieved.
Risto Paukku, who works as a part-time Preparedness Planner at the Southwest Finland district, and WWF Finland’s experienced volunteer Petri Jaarto were responsible for the leadership exercise for the volunteers. They agree with Tommi. “Now the authorities and volunteers know each other’s work better, and the authorities are more aware of the help the Vapepa organizations can offer,” Risto adds. According to Petri, the exercise also deepened the co-operation and showed the authorities the organized ability of the volunteers to act.
Learning and development despite the corona pandemic
The corona pandemic forced most of the project activities online, but fortunately, it has not prevented the exercises and co-operation completely. Southwest Finland Emergency Services (SWFES) has actively organized opportunities for Vapepa to practice together with the authorities (two tabletop exercises during the spring) and present not only its own activities but also to get acquainted with the activities of the authorities remotely.
According to Risto, in the Vellamo exercise, Vapepa was utilized more diligently by the authorities when compared to the previous exercises. “I learned from the exercise how important it is to have up-to-date information at all times and how volunteers can be controlled in such a situation throughout the process – from registration to repatriation.”
“We were able to deepen our activities based on the lessons learned from previous exercises,” Petri continues. For him, the most important lesson of the exercise was a reminder about the importance of training – practising communication, utilization of the expertise of different organizations, and the specific features of oil spill response activities together with other organizations and authorities.
In particular, the exercise taught Tommi that the authorities command centre and volunteer management centre need a liaison with a broad understanding of the substance. “Management-level discussions concerning, e.g. continuity management and strategy selection were evolving and created a culture of working together on both sides”, he notes.
Miikka Toivonen, the chief planner of Vellamo at the SWFES, echos with Tommi’s thoughts: “It was very useful that Tommi was present at the SWFES’ centre the whole time, acting as a liaison officer between the volunteers and authorities and keeping both parties updated. This role is crucial also in the real situation. In general, both the voluntary actors and us, the authorities, learned a lot about each other’s activities and procedures. I believe that Vellamo opened our eyes at the rescue services to the versatility of the assistance the volunteers can provide in the case of a large-scale emergency.”
Building trust requires time, transparency and co-operation
Petri reminds that it takes time to build trust, and patience is needed: “WWF Finland’s voluntary oil spill response troops have been built for 17 years to reach this point. Volunteers’ own organizations and activities must first be on a credible ground before they can be taken to support the authorities.” Vapepa, on the other hand, was founded as early as the 1960s, so experience in supporting the authorities has been gained over time.
Tommi, Risto and Petri encourage voluntary organizations to cooperate and engage in open collaboration with the authorities and with each other. The OIL SPILL project has provided an excellent opportunity for this!
This text focuses on the collaboration between volunteers and authorities, but the international dimension of Vellamo 2021 was also of utmost importance. It was the first time SWFES, or any other individual rescue services department in Finland, has practised requesting international assistance and the Host Nation Support mechanism at this level. According to Miikka Toivonen (SWFES), this part went well, too, and all the different phases were run through successfully.