Keep Your Radar Picture Wide
Lessons from the COVID19 Pandemic, from an EOD perspective
Editorial by Lt. Col. Alex Spora
The Swiss Armed Forces cover most issues regarding military ordnance within Switzerland, including its clearance and disposal. Military EOD teams operate all over the country. Yearly call-outs average between 550 and 650 tasks a year, most of them along with the alpine range. A smaller but sizeable portion of our missions takes place in urban areas. The usual case being a "service souvenir" from a deceased relative or an item found while refurbishing a newly bought property. Unsurprisingly, most call-outs happen during the summer and fall, as people go out and explore our mountains. In contrast, during wintertime, the range of situations is about 10 to 30 tasks per month. Starting from May/ June, it rises up to over 100 tasks per month until mid-October.
This had been the norm for more than ten years. Being a relatively small unit, we adapted our force posture accordingly, in order to spare resources for other activities. During the winter months, we had fewer teams on standby while during the summer, we would position EOD elements in forward operating bases near known hotspots. At the same time, our overseas rotations were timed "around" our seasonal call-out numbers. Our training and courses were generally scheduled outside the high season as well. It was a meticulously planned wheelwork, conceived to use every empty spot in our yearly business plan.
In March 2020, our Government called the first nation-wide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the space of a few days, public life came to a near standstill. No travel abroad was possible, and shops, restaurants, and services were closed. The Swiss Army mobilized around 5000 soldiers, including CBRN assets, in the first major mobilization since World War 2. As one of the few active duty units, we were largely left untouched, and our mission set stayed the same. Due to the sanitary restrictions, we had to interrupt any non-essential courses and trainings but kept our overseas deployments going on and secured the performance of all disposal tasks within Switzerland. Then the call-outs happened.
Chart: monthly EOD call-out comparison between 2019 and 2020 (Swiss Armed Forces – Swiss EOD Center).
The months of April and May had always been relatively quiet, thus we had fewer teams on standby. In 2019, April had witnessed a slight rise to 40 tasks per month, as it happened in the following May. In 2020, the number of tasks rose up extraordinarily, peaking at 147 call-outs in May (almost four times as much as in 2019). Hordes of mountaineers seemed to explore every recess of our Alps, finding old explosive ordnance and reporting it to our Call Center. In the meantime, a lot of people decided to start home-improvement projects, suddenly discovering that old grenades or artillery shells exist in their cellars. Magnet fishing also became a new trend. We already knew that this is happening widely abroad, but this hobby was previously less practiced within Switzerland. Hence, all the above needed to be confronted rapidly by our teams, since in many cases local police units had to secure the area and they could not afford to have units fixed on-site for too long.
Searching for the Kick: Shell fished out of the Rhine.
For this reason, our team had to plan and adapt fast. We deployed EOD elements on helicopters to "hop" on our mountain peaks, and thus work on multiple tasks per sortie. We decentralized our teams in order to respond quickly to any local surge in call-outs, as well as to reduce the risks of infection among our technicians. But first and foremost, this new situation had to be analyzed; a new readiness plan to get developed; and forces had to be generated or redeployed. In the end, we succeeded, but there are lessons to be learned over this. Over the years, we had been prepared for explosive-related events such as responding to terrorism attacks, securing big conferences or events, or countering a military threat on our soil. A pandemic or a nationwide CBRN threat was essentially a force protection issue for us, hampering our work, but not necessarily changing our force posture. Here is one big lesson to be taken: "Big events" that are totally unrelated to any explosive threat or hazard can, nevertheless, have a sizeable and lasting effect on our operations. As public safety technicians, we need to foresee that and continuously adapt our contingency plans. Many of us work in units that regularly receive intelligence reports and awareness updates on hazards or threats that pertain to our field of expertise. This supports and enhances our situational awareness. I am sure many of you will agree that mission analysis and planning are at the center of any task. We need to be "in the right film" as we move towards the threat. However, we must beware of not narrowing our professional view only to those issues that directly relate to our job. We need to be proficient in our field, and at the same time, be acutely aware of what happens outside of it.
Lt. Col. Alex Spora is an EOD officer within the Swiss Armed Forces. He previously served for 12 years as the Head of EOD Operations at the Swiss EOD Center. He deployed multiple times in Africa and in the Balkans and served as the Swiss representative at the NATO C-IED Working Group, NATO Team of Experts on Countering RCIED, as well as within the EOD and Military Engineering United Nations Military Unit Manual (UNMUM) Working Groups. He is currently a project officer in the clearance of the former Ammunition Storage Area of Mitholz, Switzerland.