What happens when a government doesn’t have the resources or capabilities to respond to a major natural disaster? American Military University’s Drs. Kate Brannum and Michelle Watts conducted research in Guatemala examining how a largely volunteer-based fire service responded to the catastrophic eruption of Volcan de Fuego in 2018 with minimal financial support from the government.
Listen to the podcast hosted by Dr. Matthew Crosston, program director in the School of Security and Global Studies, to learn more about how local firefighters formed informal networks, sought financial support locally and abroad, and what lessons other nations can learn from this disaster response.
Read the Transcript:
Hi, I’m Dr. Matthew Crosston, program director in the School of Security and Global Studies. I’m joined today with Dr. Kate Brannum, Dr. Michelle Watts, program director and faculty director in the School of Security and Global Studies. And we’re here to talk about first responders and disaster response. My first question is, can you talk a little bit about the connections between first responders, particularly firefighters and global security?
Dr. Kate Brannum: Well, as scholars and professors of international relations and international development, it may seem a bit odd that we are focusing on first responders. However, if you look at global security from a broader perspective and not just at state security, but community security and individual physical security, then you can see the importance of firefighters and other first responders. So our particular interest and our particular study is with volcano response in Guatemala. And this is an interesting case because it lets you know what happens when a government may not have the capacity to respond to a natural disaster in the same way that a wealthier government might or a stronger state. So by studying first responders, and in this particular case study, we can learn more about how NGOs and other foreign groups can be of assistance to volunteers in developing nations.
Dr. Michelle Watts: And I would add to that, that in today in global security we are looking a lot more at non-state actors and civic groups, first responders, first responders working in conjunction with the government or of their own accord as volunteer, as Dr. Brannum was saying, is increasingly important. They play an increasingly important role in filling a void, the void of the government when the government does not have the resources or the will to carry out functions, especially when there are major disasters, as in the case of the eruption of the volcano in Guatemala that led to quite a few casualties, the number of which is still disputed.
Dr. Kate Brannum: Because it isn’t just in terms of response that these volunteers are important. Clearly that’s the most important thing for saving of life or of recovering of bodies, but they also become important to us as scholars because they give us a different view of what may be occurring on the ground. So for instance, the estimates of deaths by the government of Guatemala were very low in comparison to what the volunteer firefighters or other volunteers and NGOs have said. And I might just want to note here that the system of firefighters in Guatemala is that the majority of them, the vast majority are volunteers. The person in charge of a particular firehouse maybe have a small stipend from the government and the fire station itself may receive some budget, but not enough to respond to all of these. So it relies on volunteers who not only take care of the emergency response, but they also have to go out on the streets on weekends, on their own time and try to collect money for these firefighters.
Dr. Michelle Watts: And I think that’s an important point. And it’s not just that they have to collect money. In a sense, they do in order to fulfill their mission. But it’s something that many of them really want to do. They’re spending their own time, their own resources, taking time away from family because they are not going to leave these issues unaddressed. So they’re going out and seeking this.
Dr. Kate Brannum: And these are not wealthy people themselves. They’re from the community. So these firefighters are often impoverished people who are using some of their own funds or collecting funds from other impoverished people. So one of the most important connections, and one of the reasons we got involved in this study, was looking at informal networks that have sprung up in order to help prepare volunteers and prepare the firefighters to have the resources. So there’s a lot of firehouses in the United States and in other countries that actually have ways to funnel not just funds down there, but they send all the equipment. The firetrucks go down through, like there’s groups like FundaMaya, which is one we studied in Guatemala, and they actually bring down, often with the help of a rotary club, they bring down the firetrucks, all of the equipment, and they get all the training from the United States. It’s not being provided by the Guatemalan government.
Dr. Crosston: In general terms, and you can expand on this how you’d like, why do you think it would be important to focus on volunteer firefighters either in a developing country or more broadly throughout the global south?
Dr. Michelle Watts: That’s a great question. I think that focusing on a group like volunteer firefighters really gives us a lot of insight into how groups are functioning in the absence of a strong and effective government and how groups are rising up to, you might say rise to the occasion when there is a disaster and also working and networking with other groups, whether it’s other groups in their own country, whether Guatemala or another country, but also groups like Dr. Brannum mentioned in the United States, and internationally groups are reaching out and forming those connections in order to provide services that they may not otherwise get. And that’s important to consider when there are a rising number of disasters in the world occurring today, as we see changes with climate change and an increase in natural disasters.
Dr. Kate Brannum: It’s also important when you look at the literature on NGOs and networks and whether they’re necessarily a public good. So in some sense, if you have non-state actors who are stepping in with the help of foreign governments and taking care of these needs, so helping fight fires, volcanoes, whatever, are they then in a way propping up a government that is so corrupt and isn’t willing to spend the money or use the resources to do that? So, that’s always been the question. So doing case studies on how this thing is playing out in a particular country, this relationship, just adds the general body of knowledge, not just in terms of international relations, global security, but also if you study emergency management, it’s very important for you to think about what your role is as someone who performs these duties in the US and what your relationship, what kind of networks you want to have with those in the developing worlds.
Dr. Crosston: That brings to mind an interesting question for me in the sense that, do you think there are trends already established or need to be established between that government response or the government effect to volunteer groups and networks versus this other system that seems to be developing, to say where American firehouses are helping their partners or people in Guatemala or elsewhere across the global south? You had just mentioned the idea that, well it could be controversial, it might be seen as propping up a government that’s not worthy, but might it also be seen as an outright criticism of a government that’s not functioning well because it can’t provide it? I’m just wondering if you’ve ever seen trends positively or negatively with that between-
Dr. Kate Brannum: Well, in this particular case, the one we studied in Guatemala, one of the things that we noticed and that has been discussed more broadly is that the government wants to save face, like most governments do. They don’t want to appear that they’re not responding to this disaster. And so there’s where you get a lack of cooperation with some of these volunteer groups, with the Bomberos. The Bomberos are connected to the local government strongly but not to the town government but not to the federal government. So that’s why there was the federal government is more likely to talk about smaller numbers of deaths. And there was also a lot of conflict in this particular case with how long you continue to search for bodies because the rule in Guatemala is 72 hours for a variety of reasons that their own recovery of bodies, whatever, should only go for 72 hours.
Dr. Kate Brannum: And the volunteers we talked to, which weren’t all Bomberos, Bomberos is firefighters, sorry, that they wanted to help people recover the bodies. And obviously the families are there digging with their hands to recover the bodies. And with a lot of pushback, these non-state actors were able to get an extension on how long they could look for bodies.
Dr. Michelle Watts: And I’d say absolutely, it’s a critique of the government. And that’s something that we did hear directly from the people we interviewed. They said as soon as we saw the volcano erupting, we came together to figure out what we were going to do because we knew that whatever the government was going to do was not going to be enough, was not going to be effective. And sometimes they had to work around or against the government in order to get these things done.
Dr. Kate Brannum: So for instance, in the city of Antigua, which is one of the better off cities relatively speaking in Guatemala, people collected goods in the central park there, but they did not want to give the goods to where it had been set up by the government. They only wanted it to be given by other non-state actors to the area because they did not trust the government to actually distribute those goods. And we did these interviews wanting to know people’s perceptions. So it was the perception. We weren’t looking at the reality at this point, but it was the perception of a lot of the people we interviewed that the government had turned down help from other governments. So, in any big disaster you’ll get rescue teams from Chile, United States, wherever in Europe, and that it was at least the perception of the people we interviewed that they did not trust the government to even accept these because they felt like the government would take saving face as more important than actually rescuing people.
Dr. Crosston: Do you think that perception is just something that runs amuck amongst the people or there’s actual evidence to lend credence to that dangerous perception?
Dr. Michelle Watts: I would say we had enough evidence from people both from news reports and interviews we did that there were substantial delays in accepting aid. Aid often eventually did come in, but in the wake of a disaster, timing is everything. And the fact that some teams were delayed on the border of Mexico for days was something that definitely seems to have occurred and presents an issue for the effectiveness of the rescue effort.
Dr. Crosston: Do you think that often breaks down in countries in the global south that there’s this strong anti-federal opinion at the local level and more trust or more belief in a local level or is there cynicism across the board at every layer of society?
Dr. Kate Brannum: In this particular case, there was a lot more faith in local government. These are small areas though, like very small towns. They would talk about a local government messing up, but that would be in terms of just an error, but anything done at the federal government was with a lot deeper mistrust and a belief that there was more mal-intent perhaps.
Dr. Michelle Watts: Yes. There was a lot of talk about the government not having the will. And I do think that is a common problem in a lot of developing countries, although it can also occur in developed countries. But one of the most telling and disturbing examples was when the president publicly declared that he doesn’t have one cent in the budget to spend on disaster relief, which was not factually accurate, but of course people already had a perception of ineffectiveness and lack of will. And so that just reinforced their cynicism and general feeling that they were on their own in this situation.
Dr. Kate Brannum: And something that added to this, I mean class comes into it as well because the people were not evacuated and the government did not, they monitor it, not to the same extent, maybe as other places, but there were signs that perhaps there should have been evacuation. The government was at the point of thinking about evacuation, but there was a very wealthy enclave there for a golf course and club, and they were evacuated. So, that became the almost legend of this is how we are treated. The poor campesinos and mixed with indigenous were not saved and the people on the golf course were. Now, if you ask the government and other people, they’ll say, “Well that was a private evacuation.” So that they read, they saw they had the same information and the people who ran the private golf course decided to evacuate. The government wasn’t at that point.
Dr. Kate Brannum: So how you understand, well that factual event but also what becomes a story to conceptualize depends on what your attitude is towards the government to begin with. So if you are a firefighter in the US or part of a network and you want to go help in a country like Guatemala, it’s important to take all of these things into account because you don’t want to go down there and just be calling out governments and shaming them because then they will not accept your help, but you want to get to the firefighters who you want to help. Then you have to be subtle. You have to go in there in a particular way. And I think that is something that our students who study emergency management or whatever should consider that before going into help another country or to help your brother and sister firefighters, you have to understand the political context and figure out the best way to get in there.
Dr. Michelle Watts: Absolutely, because you do have to be careful, whether you’re doing research in a country like that or you are going down as tourist, a volunteer, or someone with the best of intentions, the government, you know whatever criticisms we might have of our own government, it’s a different climate where you can be thrown in jail without quite as much due process as we might have here.
Dr. Kate Brannum: And so I think one thing I would like to see when we do simulation learning or other classroom activities is that it not just be about how to put out a fire or how to mobilize what you need to save it, but also part of that is more strategic policy oriented. How an element in that should be how the government constrains your actions.
Dr. Crosston: That actually almost leads in perfectly to the next question I had because I don’t think this is common knowledge for people in the west, certainly not in the global north. What are some of the key differences between emergency responders that are volunteers versus ones connected formally to the government? Is there even a trend in the sense that maybe in the global south or in the cases you’ve investigated, the emergency responders almost always have to be volunteers? There’s not that much federal help to man that. How does that system work?
Dr. Michelle Watts: I would say there’s an element of volunteerism even if you are paid, if that makes sense, because you’re accepting what you know is going to be long hours and low salary and knowing that people are depending on you and that you’re going to keep doing it even if you’re not paid.
Dr. Kate Brannum: And of course, even in the United States, firefighters, are linked to the local, not the federal, but there’s all kinds of grants coming down, and those just don’t exist in these States. And the local governments have no budget of their own because they’re not getting as much federal help to assist these firefighters. And one of the things that was just so amazing to us, I didn’t expect it was, the passion that these very impoverished people themselves had for firefighting. So for emergency response, I almost don’t have the words to describe it, that we met on the street collecting … They were collecting money.
Dr. Kate Brannum: A woman around 40 with her 15, 12 year old son. I don’t know, he was pretty young, who was already a junior firefighter and this family just passes down this tradition. And they talked about these firefighters went up there through the ashes when it was a forbidden zone. It was still hot. They were digging with their hands to help people, save people or there wasn’t a lot of that, but recovering bodies. They actually went that day and just among the firefighters themselves gave every penny, every dollar they could find so that they could rent a small machine to help them dig because until then, the families, the children were up there doing it with their hands. So, it’s a passion.
Dr. Crosston: Well, welcome back. We are joined by Dr. Kate Brannum, program director, Dr. Michelle Watts, faculty director in the School of Security and Global Studies. And we’re talking about first responders and disaster response. I’m not trying to be too complex with this question, but I’m wondering about the role first responders play, not just necessarily in the building of social capital, but do they have a role in the development of civil society? Are they seen as something more than just workers who help out in bad situations?
Dr. Michelle Watts: Yeah, I’d say absolutely. They have a really strong role in building social capital in a community and making people feel that they do have people to turn to, and that doesn’t mean that they just rely on them and expect them to do everything for them. The community supports them, the community donates money for equipment, gives them food and shelter if they come from far away. And I think that really is an important part of civil society and building social capital, especially when there is absence on higher levels.
Dr. Kate Brannum: I think it’s particularly essential in areas where you have different minority populations. So if you have an area like in Panajachel, where the whole Lake Atitlan region, where you have a heavily indigenous population who don’t have necessarily a lot of contact in their daily lives and a lot of the Bomberos, the firefighters are also indigenous, but some are Latino. So if there can have some interaction with people who are concerned and even though they’re volunteers, they represent the government in some sense that there’s somebody good out there that cares about us, that makes a real difference.
Dr. Crosston: You’ve both already talked at great length to a certain degree about how these countries tend to typically lack adequate resources to support themselves, and the existence of either charitable networks or brotherly network, sisterly networks with other first responders who have adequate resources help out. But is there any formalized process for that because it seems like it seems to be almost a universal trend throughout countries in the global south that won’t have the adequate resources for such a essential function. Is there anything coming from the global south out to try to establish these networks or is it really just catch as catch can?
Dr. Kate Brannum: Not from the sense that it goes through the global south governments generally, but so there are local organizations like this one I mentioned before, FundaMaya in Guatemala, and what they do, they set up their own, it is a local group founded by Guatemalans. It’s not a foreign NGO. And what they do … well, founded by some foreigners as well. They have a project they call the Bombero project, the firefighters project. And so they reach out to rotary clubs. That’s just one of the groups that you know are going to do that. And the rotary clubs tend to have connections with firefighters. And so I think a lot of the push comes from firefighters in the US who have this equipment and want to find a home for it. It’s sort of like that same thing, although it’s with buses in the US, school buses that can’t be used here anymore or still have lives. And so they go down to Central America.
Dr. Crosston: Hand-me-down firefighting equipment.
Dr. Kate Brannum: Right, but with the firefighting equipment, and it also comes down, one of the other networks is that, you have so many medical missions from the United States and Europe, so volunteer doctors and nurses from hospitals. Well of course they have a connection to EMTs. So when they go down there and see the lack of basic equipment in ambulances, so the oxygen masks, even the surgical scissors, whatever, they will often start bringing that down on trips and they will often get together with firefighters they know. So it is these informal networks that become somewhat formalized through just years of doing it.
Dr. Michelle Watts: Yeah, and I think where you see other examples of more formalized networks would be on the international level, like through the United Nations, which offers some limited training to firefighting and emergency responding groups, as well as universities in the US who offer some opportunities for firefighters to come up and get training in the United States, as well as other countries. So I don’t know if you would say that was exactly formal or a informal network globally.
Dr. Crosston: My last question is a bit broad and slightly touches upon the political, so you’ll forgive me for that interest. But is this an area where it’s like the golden unicorn? Everyone wants it, everyone wants it to succeed, everyone’s vested in it performing its functions properly, or are there ways in which these types of civic groups displace governmental functions and thereby could be deemed a threat to government or therefore not therefore supported by the local government?
Dr. Kate Brannum: I don’t think they’re seen as a threat in terms of taking on these particular roles in terms of the emergency management and that kind of thing, because in a corrupt society, that’s more money that the government gets to keep. If you weren’t just looking at emergency responders, if you looked at the whole number of functions as performed by NGOs, it could, I guess lead to more cynicism or whatever, but in a lot of ways it works out for the government. It’s money they’re not spending. As we said before, I think where it hurts the government is if they want it done quietly. So they don’t want their reputation hurt. They don’t want to say, “We’re not responding to this.” Although like you said, president Jimmy Morales was just out with the fact he didn’t have a cent in the budget. That was rather strange, and I think he probably regretted it.
Dr. Kate Brannum: But in general they’re going to let the NGOs do it. But then what happens, and it did happen in this case, the NGOs will do a bunch of work and then government officials will show up at whatever project they did and have pictures taken. That happens fairly frequently. So the government can let them do it and then still take credit.
Dr. Michelle Watts: Yeah, that was one of the most disturbing examples that we saw is people said they would come and donate resources and then they’d actually witness government officials coming in and bagging up supplies either to give out then or the assumption was that they were going to be given out on campaigns. There was an election coming up and they were going to use those resources for themselves and pass a lot of the efforts, the hard work that they had done, as the work of the government. So that was a real issue because it actually discouraged volunteerism to some degree because of the threat of the government.
Dr. Kate Brannum: And the other issue, I think a last issue I would mention, is that you have the problem, not so much with the firefighters, but the other volunteers involved in this, that you get people having to do jobs they’re not trained for. So we were shocked to find out that volunteers were preparing bodies’ autopsies because the government agency would only examine to find out who the identity was if the preliminary autopsy work had been done first. So volunteers with no medical training were actually doing this, and God bless them, but it’s probably not done the same way a qualified person would do it.
Dr. Crosston: If possible, please give me some insights and some opinions on the psychological impact, the psychological effects that revolve around this incredibly important subject and that people here probably wouldn’t have the first clue about.
Dr. Michelle Watts: Okay, thanks. Yeah. One of the things that really struck me in terms of the impact on the victims is that the fact that the government had decided not to recover the bodies, the strong impact that had on the community, that people had not only lost their homes and lost loved ones, but now they were stuck without any remains to bury and go through that healing process-
Dr. Kate Brannum: And to feel like they didn’t matter to the government.
Dr. Michelle Watts: Yeah. And to have that lingering doubt in their mind about exactly what had become of their loved ones and in the hours right after the disaster, if there was still hope and if the government have given up too soon. And I think the other really important thing is the psychological impact on the first responders because it is very difficult. And a lot of the responders that we did talk to talked about the traumatic effect of what they have to go through, not only in this disaster but in their daily jobs and how important it is to have support and training. And that is something that sometimes they get a little bit of within their job and sometimes from other countries and other departments.
Dr. Kate Brannum: It’s definitely lacking though. And again from NGOs who have social workers and psychologists working for them. But in general that is something else they spoke about that was hard for them to deal with. And this was after the volcano. It was particularly horrific and grizzly and even interviewing them months later, you could just see the traces of this experience on them.
Dr. Crosston: One last question that’s popped into my head now, talking about this aspect and this psychological angle, isn’t it true that on this particular area with first responders, disaster relief, disaster response, if anything, it might even be more important in countries of the global south because of deficiencies in government in terms of building standards and safety measures and evacuation responses, which we’ve talked about a little bit. Because I think some people in the United States throughout the west will often wonder why did a 3.2 earthquake in Iran have 100,000 people die when barely anyone would be even shaken up in Germany?
Dr. Kate Brannum: Right. So first of all, people are living in places where they would not be permitted because it would be zones that you could not live there in a lot of wealthier countries because people just live where they can. And also not speaking about this particular case in general, I mean in particular, but just generally speaking, if you’ve had to change the environment so much to get firewood and all of this, that that’s going to affect impact too certainly. So there’s certainly that nations with fewer resources are more vulnerable to disasters such as this. And Guatemala is a country that knew that this would happen. It’s going to happen. But they can’t be as prepared as other countries.
Dr. Kate Brannum: It was around the same time you had the volcano in Hawaii and we’re watching on the news every little inch of progress that lava flow made. There’s all this technology around and people have the means to get out. People living in this area where the volcano was, they don’t have cars to escape. The only way to escape would be on foot, and they didn’t want to leave their stuff because it’s all they have in the world. Oftentimes you don’t have proper security, doors, locks, whatever. So you leave, you’re never going to see your stuff again. So it’s a much larger impact.
Dr. Michelle Watts: Yeah, absolutely. The problem is twofold. It’s harder to reach people because of the infrastructure. The roads aren’t as good and the disaster is worse. It’s more catastrophic when the buildings aren’t as strong and you have more casualties.
Dr. Kate Brannum: I would say that first responders in the US on the other hand, or other wealthier nations, could learn a lot from them. So I think the firemen and fire-women, the Bomberos, in these other countries, they know how to work with very little. So they know if you have a really bad natural disaster, you’re going to lose all your resources. So they have a lot of skill that they could share with firefighters visiting with them from wealthier nations on how to respond in this kind of situation when there isn’t government support, when there isn’t an infrastructure. They have a lot more workarounds than we do.
Dr. Crosston: In terms of all of the really complex and important topics you’ve already discussed, can you elaborate a little more explicitly about how the university might be able to participate and contribute in the efforts to make improvements and help this lot of first responders in the global south?
Dr. Kate Brannum: Well, one of the things that we really try to do in our own programs is to give students a real life experience or real simulations of how they would need to respond in these kind of situations. So for instance, gamification of the classroom, role-plays where they have to deal with not just physical barriers or challenges, but also dealing with policy. Also dealing with how do you interact with government officials, with NGO officials, how do you mediate between them. All of these things that matter when you’re in that role. So for us it’s important that we have assignments, forums, the kind of activities that give students practice in doing this so that it’s not all just theoretical because what we want to do is build that bridge between theory and practice.
Dr. Michelle Watts: Yeah. We really try to make sure that our classes provide a comprehensive view of the challenges that you will face and how to better confront them in order to properly equip students. A lot of our students are already in the field and this only increases their knowledge, increases their skills and makes them better and stronger first responders. And in that, simulations and gamification have a really important role. It’s both very interesting for the students and gives you more of a real world idea of how to interact with those circumstances.
Dr. Crosston: Just to play devil’s advocate for a second, how would you respond to someone saying this type of issue, this type of study, training for this type of career possibility really has to be experienced not online, not in the classroom, not with a university, but they have to go live this and learn it the hard way? How might what you’re doing at the university provide them with a different alternative, a different perspective to know that that might not be the best way to go?
Dr. Kate Brannum: Well, I would say a few things. I would say first of all, as Dr. Watts has mentioned, that many of our students are already in that environment. So they already do have the practical experience doing that, and what they’re looking for is to enhance those skills. On the other hand, for people who, whether it be people training or who want to have a career as a first responder or perhaps want to have a career at the policy level as an NGO activist or even in their lives as volunteers with some particular club, they also need to find a way to practice those skills before you’re facing hot lava. I mean it’s great to say get the experience on the road, but people who are going through life changing situations who are victims of a volcano who are trying to survive these disasters, they’d rather you already learned a few things before you were interacting with them.
Dr. Kate Brannum: So I mean, it’s just common sense that you want to do a certain amount of learning in the classroom. You want to do a certain amount of practice in a controlled environment. And then students at the doctoral level, students may very well as part of their international experience go work with NGOs. I mean obviously you never know when a disaster is going to occur. So it’s not like you have, we’re going to go do an internship responding to volcanoes at a particular time. That just doesn’t work. But students will … You know, you can learn in an environment where you have to deal with the government, you have to deal with NGOs, you’re dealing with your fellow first responders in a non-disaster situation. Learn those skills and then when the worst happens, you’re ready for it.
Dr. Michelle Watts: It’s also important to note that our instructors are not just academics, they’re practitioners. And so many of them are senior in their field and they have both experience and insights that students who are starting out or even mid-career might not have. And so they really bring a wealth of to the students that is difficult to get elsewhere.
Dr. Crosston: All right. Thank you very much. Once again, Dr. Kate Brannum, program director, and Dr. Michelle Watts, faculty director from the School of Security and Global Studies. Thank you for a fascinating and extremely important conversation.