The extraordinary situation gives the Federal Council extensive powers. Despite leadership exercises in recent years, Switzerland is breaking new ground every day with its federal security architecture.
It was years before the Corona crisis in a Bernese Oberland village. The mayor sat at the meeting table in her tight office with her fire department commander, the civil defense chief and a geologist. After days of rain, the left flank of the valley had slipped in a debris flow. The debris dammed the mountain stream into a lake above the village.
The operator of the local power plant put pressure on the community to ensure that the road was opened again. A construction site is standing still, it costs a lot of money every day.
But the geologist advised the mayor to remain steadfast. Accept the new landscape. Apply for a new street at the canton. The construction site can wait, even if the power plants are the largest employer in the valley. The risk of a tidal wave is too great if something is changed on the rubble cone. In addition, the mountain above is still in motion. The fire department commander and the chief of civil protection agreed. The canton built an emergency road and later dredged a new river bed. A decision of the community management body, which was ultimately borne by the power plant operator.
Local governing bodies are the backbone
Switzerland functions in disasters just as it did during the floods in 2005: in small, local cells, organized from bottom to top. “Bottom up”, to put it a little more fashionably. The municipalities and districts take care of the immediate need in the immediate vicinity, networked with the management body at the cantonal level, which makes the overriding decisions and coordinates between the individual organizations. The governing bodies at this level are the backbone of Swiss civil protection because they reach people and communities, but can also involve the economy.
But now, in the corona crisis, the federal government has taken over. The extraordinary situation, which gives him extensive powers under the Epidemic Act, has been overwhelming the powers of the municipalities and cantons for a week. The Federal Council is now leading, advised by the Federal Office of Public Health (BAG). The cantonal authorities’ scope for action is being increasingly restricted by the «Regulations on measures to combat the corona virus».
Disasters and emergencies
What has proven itself in the event of floods, landslides or storms is only of limited use in Switzerland’s greatest threat to public order since the Second World War. The virus seems to creep into the inherited and tried and tested structures of the community.
But this is not a real paradigm shift, Hanspeter von Flüe, head of the Office for Civil Protection, Sports and Military Affairs of the Canton of Bern, ascertained at the request of the NZZ. Von Flüe has always campaigned for federalism in crisis management and has spoken out against too many competencies at federal level. According to von Flüe, the distinction between disasters and emergencies is decisive for the allocation of leadership skills.
According to Flüe, immediate natural events such as a large debris flow must be dealt with as a first priority at the local, if necessary regional, level. These are catastrophes or major events that occur occasionally and suddenly. On the other hand, an emergency lasts for a long time. The consequences are only noticeable over time – as is the case with the corona pandemic. Heat waves, nuclear accidents or power outages for extended periods can also lead to emergency situations.
In contrast to disasters, according to Flüe, Bern’s top civil protection officer, such situations have to be led from top to bottom. The epidemic law also follows this logic. It escalates from the normal to the special to the extraordinary situation and thus also delegates the competences away from the cantons to the federal level. The worse the situation, the more uniform the management structure.
Infectious disease as a type of crisis of the future
The distinction between situation and event also becomes clear in a risk analysis by the DDPS, which was published in 2015 by Federal Councilor Ueli Maurer. The centerpiece is a diagram that classifies the danger of events by frequency and damage potential in billions. A multi-week shortage of electricity is reported as the highest risk. A pandemic is considered almost as dangerous. According to the analysis entitled “Disasters and emergencies in Switzerland”, such a wave of diseases occurs once every thirty years and causes damage of around CHF 100 billion.
The pandemic has been a high priority in the prevention of civil protection since the beginning of the 21st century. The federal government already carried out a strategic leadership exercise with a corresponding scenario in 2005. The starting point was the experience with Sars lung disease in previous years. The Federal Chancellery formulated the context as follows: “The scenario ‘epidemic in Switzerland’ forms the backdrop for reviewing and optimizing the federal management systems. It stands for new challenges of a crisis type of the future. »
Federal staff as a central instrument
At that time, the cooperation between the departments, the responsibilities within the management organizations and the communication as part of the management processes were examined. The final report on the strategy exercise commended the fact that the leadership had been transferred to the interior department in line with the situation. The crisis team of the Federal Office of Public Health “exercised a leading role in a professional manner in a convincing manner,” wrote the exercise management in the final report.
Potential for optimization is recognized, however subtly formulated between the lines, in the coordination between the departments and with the cantons. The introduction of the staff position in the Federal Office for Civil Protection (Babs) in 2011 and the expansion of the electronic situation display then created instruments that should enable coherent management.
Ten years later, in 2014, the combination of a lack of electricity with a pandemic was examined in a joint exercise by the various civil protection partners at all levels of government, from the cantonal police to the Federal Office of Public Health. The recommendation of the exercise management in the final report was unequivocal: “The connection with the cantons must be clarified, their representation on the federal staff checked and improved.”
As a result of this exercise, among other things, the Federal Council expanded the tasks of the Federal Staff two years ago. He also coordinates in the event of earthquakes, pandemics, a nuclear accident or a power shortage. Several insiders from the administration report that this central coordination instrument was only started up very slowly in the Corona crisis. At the latest since February 28, when the Federal Council decided the special situation according to the Epidemic Act, the Federal Staff has been activated as the highest crisis management body.
Lessons learned from an emergency
On request, the Federal Office of Public Health (BAG) wrote that the responsible federal and cantonal authorities cooperated ad hoc, “based on current needs, and they coordinate within the framework of the federal staff”. The BAG is chaired, the federal staff coordinates on the part of the federal government, “if necessary”.
The cantons are much more experienced in their crisis organization because the cantonal management bodies (KFO) had to deal with various emergencies in the past. In the Canton of Bern, the KFO under Hanspeter von Flüe bundles all activities related to the corona virus. The cantonal doctor provides the epidemiological assessment, the general secretary of the economic directorate provides the data on the state of the economy. The cantonal police, civil defense and emergency services are also among others at the table.
The canton’s management bodies therefore continue to play a key role in coping with the crisis. They are one of the resilience factors in the system – and also a driver for further measures. The exemption for particularly affected cantons, which the Federal Council included in the regulation on Friday, takes this into account. Federal Councilor Alain Berset, for example, had already praised the Ticino government for its courageous behavior when he visited Bellinzona: “The Canton of Ticino has taken on a pioneering role in this coronavirus crisis.”
The federal government is breaking new ground every day with its crisis management. The conclusion of Toni Frisch, who led the last pandemic exercise in 2014, now applies to emergencies: The important cooperation between the Confederation, the cantons and third parties to deal with a national emergency must be strengthened and trained. The lessons learned, the lessons from the corona crisis, will benefit the federal government just as much as the leadership bodies of the municipalities will benefit from the storms and debris flow.
Large-scale deployment of civil defense with a focus on Ticino
geo. In addition to the army, civil defense is also deployed. According to Christoph Flury, deputy director of the Federal Office for Civil Protection, around 5,000 people responsible for protection support the civil health system. Others are ready at home to also move in.
The civil protection officers run tria offices in front of hospitals, help with outpatient care for patients or sit on the helplines’ phone.
The operational competence lies with the cantons. Bids are binding. Indispensable employees of civilian companies are taken into account. In the canton of Graubünden, employees from the tourism industry have volunteered for assignments.
In 2004 the actual medical service of the civil defense was abolished. The reintroduction has been discussed internally for some time.