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René Wagemans and Alan Pellowe.

72 EU MODEX exercises, lessons learnt. Interview with René Wagemans

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As the EU MODEX Cycle 11 came to a close (Cycle 12 started in December) we met two well-known faces and leaders of the exercises over the years. Ahead of their retirement, Alan Pellowe (Main Coach/Trainer of 42 EU MODEX exercises) and René Wagemans (Chief Exercise Controller, who ran 30 EU MODEXes) talked to the Knowledge Network about the lessons learnt from their time running exercises.

By Knowledge Network – Staff member

Could you share some of the key moments or experiences that have shaped your expertise in crisis response? 

I experienced my first contact with the “real disaster world” during the Bam earthquake in Iran in 2003, witnessing unimaginable devastation. Following that, I participated in disaster relief efforts including the 2004 tsunami, floods in Pakistan and Haiti, the Ebola mission in Mali, and mudslide in Sierra Leone. These experiences, alongside teaching UNDAC courses, enriched my understanding of disaster response.

Flexibility was essential. Perhaps the biggest challenge was having to put together an EU MODEX in six weeks!

In your role, you've been involved in both table top and field exercises. How do these different types of exercises contribute to the preparation of modules and civil protection authorities for international deployments?

EU MODEX serves as the final preparatory step before deploying on a mission. We avoid calling it an "exercise" to emphasise the transition to a mission mindset. Its purpose is to simulate field situations encountered during disasters, though it can't fully replicate real-life scenarios. 

MODEX offers a safe environment for teams to test and refine their skills, allowing for mistakes without consequences. Depending on the venue's quality, it provides a platform to challenge management levels with unfamiliar topics and objectives. Unfortunately, some still view it primarily as a technical skills exercise, neglecting crucial aspects like handling security issues and team communication. Teams are deliberately given incomplete requirements to encourage cooperation and innovative problem-solving.

Ideally, all management levels should participate in table top exercises, providing opportunities for feedback and discussion. These exercises also facilitate newcomers' understanding of the system and how to align national and international requirements. It's essential to ensure that learning objectives are met without compromising scenario outcomes. In an ideal scenario, teams new to MODEX should start with table top exercises.

Awareness of risks, particularly in crisis situations where medical assistance and evacuation may be limited, is emphasised. We enforce zero tolerance for rule violations, occasionally using diplomatic skills to ensure compliance, as attitude and behaviour are critical in missions. The consortium has developed its own safety standards based on observed incidents, such as ‘double roping’ and confined space management. Through continuous analysis of minor incidents, we've maintained a record of safety excellence. Duty of care and risk management have become increasingly important in organisational practices.

Safety is a key concern in disaster response, with national and local responsibilities.

While there's room for improvement, particularly in enhancing team management at the international level, this would require additional resources and incurred costs. Feedback from deployed teams worldwide should be communicated to the Commission for analysis and integration into future cycles. Participants in MODEX should fully grasp the opportunities it offers and ensure their teams are adequately prepared with involvement from national authorities. Ultimately, it's the individual workers who face the challenges and must deliver. 

Participants in MODEX should fully grasp the opportunities it offers and ensure their teams are adequately prepared with involvement from national authorities. Ultimately, it's the individual workers who face the challenges and must deliver.

And finally, for you personally - what’s next for you after retirement?

I'm grateful for my 20 years in disaster response, particularly for the teamwork with colleagues and friends, including Alan Pellowe, who was the Main Trainer. Throughout the "MODEX years," our shared goal was to enhance MODEX for the benefit of modules and EU taxpayers. Trust, both internally and externally, was a vital virtue. Although I've recently retired, I will continue to follow developments in the field, albeit less intensively. Now, I have more time for hobbies, including overseeing a climbing site near Liège and serving as a tourist guide at the Belgian Fort of Eben-Emael. With both physical and intellectual pursuits, there's no need for a rocking chair and newspaper!

 I would like to wish our community all the best and thank everyone for the wonderful years.

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The Knowledge Network – Staff member

The Knowledge Network editorial team is here to share the news and stories of the Knowledge Network community. We'd love to hear your news, events and personal stories about your life in civil protection and disaster risk management. If you've got a story to share, please contact us.

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