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B-FAST's field hospital covered a whopping 6,000 m², the size of a football field (© B-FAST).
In barely 10 days, the Belgian emergency intervention team B-FAST – coordinated by the FPS Foreign Affairs – succeeded in setting up a fully operational field hospital in Türkiye. A retrospective.
On 6 February 2023, Türkiye and Syria were rocked by two massive earthquakes measuring 7.8 and 7.7 on the Richter scale. On 20 March 2023, the death toll stood at more than 57,000: over 50,000 in Türkiye and more than 7,200 in Syria. That makes this earthquake the 5th deadliest earthquake we have seen this century. Around 130,000 people were also injured, 1.5 million were left homeless and buildings and infrastructure suffered untold amounts of damage. The earthquake itself was also followed by countless aftershocks.
The Belgian emergency intervention team B-FAST is always ready in the event of a disaster abroad and it was also ready for action this time. The Turkish authorities sent out an international request for help for such things as search and rescue teams – to locate survivors – and specialist field hospitals. The planning committee at B-FAST was monitoring the situation very closely. It actually met right away on 6 February and subsequently held a meeting with the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, in order to offer the most effective possible aid package to the affected areas.
Given the extreme weather conditions, B-FAST chose to donate 10,000 warm sleeping bags immediately. On 8 February, we sent an initial reconnaissance squad of 7 people out to the disaster area and they took some of those sleeping bags with them. On Friday 10 February, the team from B-FAST – in coordination with the Turkish authorities and the World Health Organization (WHO) – decided to set up the field hospital in Kirikhan, which is situated in the severely affected Hatay province. The hospital was to be set up next to a badly damaged local hospital that could no longer receive any patients.
This is what the operating room looked like (© B-FAST).
A fully fledged hospital
On Saturday 11 February, a second team of 40 left for Türkiye, taking with them much of the equipment and materials needed to raise the hospital. On 14 February, a group of 50 people – mostly doctors and nurses – followed with medical equipment. It took several flights from the military airport in Melsbroek to transfer all of that medical equipment. During the weekend of 25 and 26 February, the team was relieved by a new team of medical and logistics personnel who remained on site until 10 March.
Thanks to the speed in which the operation was conducted, the hospital successfully provided medical care for the first time as soon as 16 February, 10 days after the disaster. And the field hospital itself was much larger than just a few tents; it took up an area of no less than 6,000 square metres – the size of a soccer field. In specialist jargon, it is known as an Emergency Medical Team Type 2 (EMT-2).
That means that it is a full-service hospital that includes an emergency ward, a general consultation ward, a radiology ward, a pharmacy and an operating room. What is more, it also offered a special mother and child ward. A water treatment unit provided water for drinking. Finally, a kitchen crew worked non-stop to prepare delicious meals for the personnel and the patients.
Handover to Türkiye
From 2 March onwards, a team of Turkish doctors, nurses, pharmacists and logistics personnel shadowed the B-FAST team to familiarise themselves with the operation of the field hospital. Finally, on 9 March, B-FAST officially handed over the hospital to the Turkish Ministry of Health. Supporting equipment such as medical devices, medication, the kitchen and the water treatment plant were also donated.
Some 50 Turkish doctors and nurses took over the operation, in collaboration with a management team from the nearby hospital in Kirikhan. The Turkish authorities wanted to take over and use the field hospital for the reason that due to the many aftershocks, many patients felt safer in tents than in a building.
3,503 patients, 211 volunteers
Between its opening on 16 February and the handover on 9 March, the B-FAST field hospital received no fewer than 3,503 patients. During those 22 days, the field hospital was open around the clock, helping an average of 159 patients per day. Almost one third of its patients were children. Eight children were also born, all of whom are in good health.
All of these services would not have been possible without the many volunteers, all of whom had to interrupt their duties in Belgium to work in the field hospital in Türkiye. It began with a reconnaissance team that determined the location, followed by a logistics team that erected the field hospital. The tents, electricity and water, the equipment and all other things besides. They were then followed by 2 rotations of medical personnel that included all of the necessary specialisms: from midwives, pharmacists and nurses to radiologists, emergency physicians and surgeons.
Overall, a total of 211 B-FAST volunteers participated in the intervention. These included 80 people from the logistics section, 119 people with a medical profile and 11 people looking after the management of the hospital. With the help of our embassy in Ankara and the Turkish Ministry of Youth and Sports, B-FAST was also able to call on the services of 24 local interpreters, who formed a crucial part of the services provided by the field hospital.
Almost a third of the patients were children (© B-FAST).
A successful operation
B-FAST's intervention in Türkiye can rightly be called a success. As the account above shows, B-FAST took action immediately after the disaster occurred. Belgium's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hadja Lahbib, called her opposite number in Türkiye, who was delighted with our offer of a field hospital.
What is necessary to realise is that since 2019, B-FAST no longer has a so-called search and rescue team. Such teams are specialists who search for survivors among the rubble immediately after a disaster and need to be on the scene in a hurry to save as many lives as possible. In the event, Türkiye's call for such teams was actually met within a very short time. On the European level, 17 search and rescue teams were dispatched.
Greater complementarity with European countries
The fact that B-FAST no longer offers a search and rescue team is part of a reorganisation carried out by Belgian Civil Protection several years ago. The objective of this was to specialise in services that are less available in the other European countries, thereby ensuring greater complementarity. Along with France, Spain and Italy, B-FAST specialised in field hospitals, amongst other things. Of those countries, our country was first on the scene. In addition, B-FAST offers water treatment, large water pumps (in the event of a flood) and emergency housing, among other services.
It is important to note that B-FAST's emergency interventions almost always take place within the framework of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM), a platform that serves as a single point of contact whenever urgent disaster assistance is needed. The UCPM provided a context in which the synergies that exist between different Member States can be utilised in full and therefore made the creation of an "EU-FAST" unnecessary.
The fact that B-FAST has not become active in Syria is due to the local security situation. One of the conditions for an intervention by B-FAST is that the emergency crew must be able to work in complete safety. Operating in an area ravaged by an armed conflict is therefore excluded. This does not mean that Belgium has abandoned the victims in Syria, however. After all, humanitarian aid was provided for that purpose (see box).
Various FPSs involved
B-FAST is a collaboration between Defence, FPS Interior, FPS Health, FPS Policy and Support, the Chancellery and FPS Foreign Affairs, which provides the secretariat. The involvement of various departments poses a real challenge, but the results show that the cooperation is running smoothly. Bringing together a diverse range of competences in this way actually increases the quality of B-FAST's interventions.
After all, providing emergency relief after a disaster is an extremely complex undertaking. The operation of B-FAST continues to evolve so that it is able to provide emergency assistance even more smoothly each time a new disaster strikes. The total cost of the intervention in Türkiye was 8 million euros.
Humanitarian aid for the disaster zone in Syria
Belgium also provided immediate humanitarian aid for the disaster zone in Syria. So far, aid to the value of 6 million euros has been provided. Humanitarian aid addresses the needs that arise in the slightly longer term after a disaster.
Belgium contributed 4 million euros to the UN cross-border fund that supplies aid to the rebel-held area in Syria via the Turkish border. This year, it also increased its support for the Disaster Response Emergency Fund (DREF), an emergency fund of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that supports local chapters worldwide to provide a rapid response to such disasters. Both funds ensure that relief organisations already on the ground can respond quickly and efficiently.
In addition, a sum of €2 million will be passed on to EU humanitarian partner organisations that have been active in the Syrian disaster zone for some time and are therefore very familiar with the needs that exist on the ground.
Humanitarian aid falls under the authority of Belgium's Minister of Development Cooperation, Caroline Gennez, while B-FAST is the responsibility of the country's Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hadja Lahbib.