How to improve the integrated management of risks and cooperation for the protection of public spaces?

Paris, France, February 2022 – How to improve the integrated management of risks and cooperation for the protection of public spaces? We’ve asked Yves Van de Vloet, research associate in PACTESUR and manager at Efus of the ALARM project on French-Belgian cooperation in civil protection. The ALARM project, which concluded in September 2021, sought to foster operational cross-border cooperation between civil security actors operating on both sides of the France-Belgium border. The PACTESUR project seeks to protect urban public spaces from evolving threats while preserving their openness and accessibility to all.

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French-Belgian cross border cooperation
With a dense population and numerous industries (mines, steel, glass), the border region between France and Belgium has been a source of risks since the 19th century.The two countries share a 600-km long border and host industrial sites, transport infrastructure and rivers that can be vulnerable to major incidents and disasters. In particular, the cross-border region hosts numerous industrial plants, including some labelled Seveso (i.e., classified as representing a risk of major incident), as well as rail yards that receive convoys of hazardous material, major roads, canals, and two nuclear plants (Graveline and Chooz). The region is also at risk of natural catastrophes such as floods, landslides and sinkholes.

Two European projects, ALARM and PACTESUR, in which Efus is a partner, explore the integrated management of risks and cooperation for the protection of public spaces. In what way are they linked?

Funded by the European Union’s Interreg France-Wallonie-Vlaanderen programme, the ALARM project (2016-2021) sought to strength French-Belgian cooperation in several domains (risk analysis, planning, crisis management) and on a wide range of risks. It gathered 26 partners.

In the face of these shared risks (chemical pollution, floods…), the leaders of the ALARM project, including Belgian and French local elected officials, adopted a forward-looking approach based on two axes: the integrated management of risks, and operational day-to-day cooperation.  

1) The integrated management of risks

The first objective was to put in place an integrated management of natural, technological and human-made risks on both sides of the border. In practical terms, the Geo-Alarm platform identifies at-risk sites and the nature of the risks, as well as the area and population that could be affected and the material and human resources available on both sides of the border (mechanical ladders, specialised means in case of chemical accident, floods, landslides, train wrecks…).

The ALARM project created an updated register of the available medical resources such as hospitals that can treat severe burns, facilities where to accommodate evacuees, ambulances and other vehicles, etc. The relevant services in Belgium and France regularly update this platform so that the level of risk and available resources are always up to date.

The PACTESUR project also promotes an integrated approach by local and city authorities for the protection of their public spaces, whether pedestrian streets that could be the target of a terrorist attack or a stadium where football fans could be involved in a mass brawl.

Efus promotes an integrated approach to urban security and thus encourages local and regional authorities to identify the risks they are exposed to whether they are urban crime or natural, industrial or man-made. Whatever the situation, local elected officials are responsible for risk prevention and management. Indeed, in most European countries, the law identifies the local level as the first one for crisis management. In France and Belgium, depending on the level of risk, mayors are the authority that call for the intervention of supra-local authorities and means, such as prefects in France and provincial governors in Belgium. 

2) Day-to-day operational cooperation

The ALARM project was also based on the regular mobilisation of Belgian and French emergency response services, in other words the mutual capacity for emergency response in the cross-border region, and the development of a partnership ‘culture’ between the two countries’ emergency services. Since 1981, the two countries share cooperation agreements that enable them to assist one another in case of catastrophe or major incident, but the ALARM project added the possibility to intervene also for less serious incidents, depending on the availability of emergency means.

As such, the SAMU (Service d’Aide Médicale Urgente or Urgent Medical Aid Service) and SMUR (Service Mobile d’Urgence et de Réanimation or Mobile Emergency and Resuscitation Service) emergency services can intervene to support colleagues on the other side of the border. For example, a French rescue station can be closer to a place in Belgium where an accident has happened and better able to intervene. The same goes the other way round. Through such day-to-day cooperation, firemen, first responders and police officers get to know each other and are thus better able to efficiently coordinate their intervention.    

Each cross-border intervention is evaluated and feedback is provided so as to adapt, modify or confirm the modalities for intervention. Furthermore, French and Belgian firemen regularly participate in joint exercises and trainings. The ALARM project thus contributed to drafting a cross-border scheme for the analysis and handling of risks (schéma transfrontalier d’analyse et de couverture des risques, STACR).

On the other hand, the analysis of experiences in Nice, Turin, Gdansk, Liège and Madrid highlighted how important it is to prepare for events as complex as a shoot-out, a panic or a terrorist attack. Local elected officials and municipal departments are directly involved. Such preparedness also involves the fire brigade, emergency first responders and police, which all have their technical and ethical specificities.

What results from the ALARM project could benefit PACTESUR? What is the role of local authorities in cross-border crisis management?

The ALARM project significantly contributed to strengthening the safety of citizens living in the cross-border region between France and Belgium through sharing a common approach of the risks.

As it does in the PACTESUR project, Efus was responsible for raising awareness among Belgian and French local elected officials on the need to have a cross-border approach. During the five-year project, we promoted the idea that security knows no border. In other words, given that we share the same risks, we must also share our analysis of such risks and hence a common, solid preventive approach. Let’s share our human and material resources as well as our management experience and let’s incorporate the cross-border dimension in our local safeguarding and emergency plans.

We reached 537 French mayors and 83 Belgian ones on the importance of cooperating on civil protection issues along the 630-km border. It took time. We first had to organise exchanges about their respective competences regarding crisis prevention and management.

According to both the French and Belgian legislation, local elected officials play a key role in this respect. Indeed, local authorities, which are by nature closest to the situation on the ground, have the duty to evaluate the risks affecting their territory. This legislation is relevant for both ALARM and PACTESUR.

In France, the Law of 13 August 2004 provides that mayors establish Communal Safeguarding Plans (Plans Communaux de Sauvegarde, PCS) which must include:

·   immediate measures for safeguarding and protecting people

·   measures to give warning and safety recommendations

·   the identification of available resources

·   measures to be implemented to support the population.

Following the 2015, 2016 and 2017 terrorist attacks in France, towns and cities incorporated this type of threat in their PCS.

The situation is similar in Belgium where, as per Royal Decrees issued in 2006, 2018 and 2019, mayors have the duty to publish a Communal Emergency and Intervention Plan (Plan Communal d’Urgence et d’Intervention) based on a survey of local risks. As the administrative authority responsible for public order in their local territory, Belgian mayors are in charge of coordinating several types of responders and stakeholders: the fire brigade, emergency medical assistance, logistics (civil protection and Defence), and communication.

Thanks in part to the work carried out by the ALARM project and the numerous seminars it organised with French and Belgian elected officials and technicians, an increasing number of Communal Safeguarding Plans in France and Communal Emergency and Intervention Plans in Belgium do include aspects that concern the cross-border region. This is a major step forward.  

Furthermore, ALARM highlighted how crucial it is for elected officials to be aware of their civil and criminal liability regarding risk prevention and the preparation of adapted plans. In Belgium, the July 2004 Ghislenghien catastrophe, when a natural gas pipe was accidentally perforated by a construction vehicle and exploded, killing 24 and injuring 132 people, was a watershed. The accident triggered a criminal investigation on the local mayor and his insufficient knowledge of the subterranean risks existing in the area, where a parking lot was under construction.

As regards PACTESUR, local safety plans must include risks affecting public spaces and identify who is responsible for their management, whether municipal, regional or national authorities, depending on the partner cities’ respective countries. Short of that, operators could accuse each other of being unprepared.  

The ALARM project highlighted the need for elected officials and other stakeholders to operate within precise legal frameworks that must be either established or adapted. What does it mean in practical terms?

Any support intervention in a neighbouring country must be carried out within a contractual and regulatory framework. The 21 April 1981 agreement between Belgium and France, which has since been updated several times, provides the legal framework for mutual intervention in case of catastrophe or major incident, but there was no precise framework up until now for daily interventions that are not considered as part of disaster relief.

The ALARM project leaders thus drafted a new regulatory framework: on 18 July 2019, the Belgian and French ministries of the Interior signed an “administrative arrangement” that facilitates cross-border operational cooperation and widens the scope of situations in which emergency response can be provided on both sides of the border. Following this agreement, in 2021, local implementation protocols were signed between the departmental prefects in France and provincial governors in Belgium and the presidents of the departmental emergency services (services départementaux de secours) in France and the president-mayors of the Belgian disaster recovery areas (zones de secours). These protocols encompass the whole cross-border region and correspond to the needs of residents, as conveyed by local elected officials.

The PACTESUR project is also discussing the establishment of a common European framework and examines the legislation currently in force in the Member States. The project will notably produce recommendations for national governments and European institutions. It is producing factsheets and practical tools on several topics, including communication, innovation and cooperation in crisis management.

Both projects highlight the need to raise awareness among citizens about their role in prevention and safety. What did the ALARM project achieve in this respect?

Indeed, the ALARM project devoted much of its work on the role of citizens in emergency planning. Recent events, such as the summer 2021 floods in Belgium and the 2020 Storm Alex in the south of France, showed that citizens can mobilise to help each other and how important it is to associate them as early as possible. ALARM thus organised a seminar on the Communal Reserves for Civil Protection (Réserves Communales de Sécurité Civile) created by several French towns and cities, including Nice, which leads PACTESUR.

These are groups of volunteers who can support professional responders, such as nurses, radio technicians, electricians, plumbers, carpenters who can, for example, set up a shelter, help clear up debris, or cordon off damaged buildings. Volunteers played a big part in the relief effort during the floods in Belgium and they saved lives. However, this type of intervention must be well organised. Volunteers should be trained, and their role should be clearly defined as part of the emergency response. It should be noted that they are also potential future recruits for the emergency services.

How can we improve cooperation when things are normal, i.e., before a crisis breaks out?

It’s a difficult question because any crisis is by nature an accident: a lorry carrying hazardous materials can have an accident; a gas pipeline can be accidentally perforated; a demented killer can show up in a public space… There is no zero risk, so how do you prepare for that? A number of risks can be identified and planned, and it is the responsibility of public authorities to identify them as precisely as possible in their local territory.

This mapping of the risks must be regularly updated, notably as regards the means that must be deployed in response to an accident (in France, municipalities can establish a Communal Information Document on Major Risks – Document d’Information Communal sur les Risques Majeurs, DICRIM). ALARM highlighted the importance of organising exercises whereby each actor fulfil their role, perform their duties and carry out an evaluation. To-do factsheets and practical guides on the conduct of emergency and safeguard operations are very useful.

What are the main difficulties in implementing a cooperation protocol and how to overcome them?

Cooperation protocols are essential and must be established considering the respective competencies of the strategic authorities on the one hand and the operational authorities on the other. Concerning the strategic level, the first authorities in line are the local elected officials and the mayors, who are responsible for the safety or citizens. Depending on the scale or nature of incidents, local authorities can mobilise human and material resources that are under the jurisdiction of supra-local authorities, such as prefects in France and regional governors or ministers in Belgium. Efforts must be coordinated while respecting the prerogatives of each level of governance. Also, it is important to speak with one voice to the media.

As shown by the experience of several European cities, the mobilisation of means is done in stages, from the local to the supra-local level (province, department, region), and then the national level in case of major crisis as was the case with the Covid pandemic.

The ALARM project highlighted the need to act at an international level, including the cross-border one, given that the risks to the population are shared. There are cooperation mechanisms among the different Member States. As such, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism aims to strengthen cooperation between the EU Member States and 6 Participating States on civil protection to improve prevention, preparedness and response to disasters. When an emergency overwhelms the response capabilities of a country in Europe and beyond, it can request assistance through the Mechanism. The European Commission contributes to at least 75% of the transport and/or operational costs of deployments. Since its inception in 2001, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism has responded to over 540 requests for assistance inside and outside the EU, including more than a hundred in 2020, notably the Beirut explosion in August 2020 and flood relief in Ukraine, Niger and Sudan.

Furthermore, the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) is constantly in contact with national civil protection authorities and ensures the rapid deployment of emergency support. It can intervene in disasters that occur out of the European space.

A new European project

Efus is now continuing the work carried through ALARM as a partner in a new European project on risk management and civil protection. Led by the Fraunhofer German research institute, RiskPACC seeks to improve coordination between civil protection agencies and citizens to strengthen resilience to disasters

This article has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the European Commission or the PACTESUR consortium.

About the author

Yves van de Vloet is Associate Expert at Efus. Specialised in border security, he was in charge of the awareness of elected officials work package of the ALARM project. He has been Deputy Chief of Staff of the Governor of the Hainaut province and of the President-Minister of the Brussels-Capital-Ixelles Region, and Director of the Department for Crime Prevention at the Belgian Ministry of the Interior. He also has been a teacher at the University of Liège and various police schools and training academies. He is a member of the PACTESUR expert advisory committee.


The PACTESUR project aims to empower cities and local actors in the field of security of urban public spaces facing threats, such as terrorist attacks. Through a bottom-up approach, the project gathers local decision makers, security forces, urban security experts, urban planners, IT developers, trainers, front-line practitioners, designers and others in order to shape new European local policies to secure public spaces against terrorist attacks.


A partner in the PACTESUR project, Efus is publishing a series of articles written by the project’s Associated Cities and Expert Advisory Committee, with the aim of contributing to the European debate on the protection of public spaces against threats. Because the security challenges affecting public spaces are in constant evolution, this collection intends to be a space for reflection and discussion on these issues.