Germany’s Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) was created on August 22, 1950, by the then German Interior Minister Gustav Heinemann. Its first president was Otto Lummitzsch, an architect and construction engineer, who served in a corps of engineers during World War I.
In 1919, Lummitzsch had already founded THW’s precursor organization, the Technische Nothilfe (TN), or Technical Emergency Aid, which emerged from the military corps of engineers. During Hitler’s Third Reich, Lummitzsch lost his job as the head of TN in 1934 after he refused to divorce his wife, who was half Jewish.
Since 1953, THW is part of the German Ministry of the Interior as a federal agency with its own administration. Originally, the agency’s main purpose was civil defense in the event of war. But this has changed over the decades, including now a wide range of disaster relief operations such as traffic accidents, industrial disasters, earthquakes, and floods.
Germany is trying to come to grips with the vast devastation and loss of life caused by the worst floods in decades
Some 80,000 volunteer helpers are members of THW today, among them about 15,000 young people, who spend their leisure time preparing to help others in need. The membership is organized under 668 local chapters. Only about 1,800 staff are full-time employed at the agency, meaning that 99% are engaged on a voluntary basis.
The organization has also been active in more than 130 disaster relief operations abroad. Its teams were seen in action after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005 and following storms Lothar and Martin that hit France in 2000, which came to be THW’s largest foreign operation to date.
After the giant blast in the harbor of Beirut in 2020, THW search teams were among the first foreign helpers at the site
THW crews can be assigned to a wide range of tasks. There are specialist teams for search and rescue operations, and debris clearance, as well as for reestablishing water and electricity systems. Removing oil pollution from water resources can also be done by THW.
During the ongoing flood rescue in southwestern Germany, some 2,100 THW volunteers from 165 chapters are engaged in disaster relief. That’s, however, just a tenth of volunteers who took part in the agency’s largest national operation so far, when 24,000 THW volunteers simultaneously fought the flooding on the Elbe river in August 2002.
THW pumping teams have much to do as flood water is still filling up thousands of cellars and basements
THW’s local chapters include specialized teams, the so-called technical platoons, which are equipped with modern machinery to support their rescue efforts.
In the town of Euskirchen, for example, the agency’s crews were battling rising waters in the Steinbach hydro dam with huge rotary pumps that are able to pump 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of water per minute — equivalent to about a bathtub full of water every other second. As the dam was nevertheless threatening to breach, THW was able to deploy a monster pump, of which there are only 14 in Germany, to pump a staggering 25,000 liters per minute out of the swelling lake.
According to media reports, five THW pumping crews were involved in the Steinbach dam rescue, emptying the lake at a rate of 70,000 liters per minute, and eventually saving all downstream communities from inundation.
Over 100 people have been reported dead and scores more are missing after torrential rain and floods swept across Western Europe, with Germany bearing the brunt of one of its biggest natural disasters in recent decades. Rescue operations continue in the country’s hardest-hit cities and towns. Over a thousand citizens are still missing and many more remain trapped in flooded buildings.
Some districts in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) are still underwater, others are assessing damage as floodwaters recede. Leaking gas pipes and structural damage to buildings across the state have turned some sites into death traps and authorities have warned people not to go looking for missing relatives on their own but to leave it to rescue workers.
With the death toll climbing higher almost hourly, thousands of volunteers, firefighters and some 900 army personnel have joined the clean-up and salvage operations. There are fears that more victims could be found as waters recede and begin to reveal the true toll the storm took on everything in its path.
People trapped in buildings likely to collapse at any second are in urgent need of help. In towns such as Schuld and Heimerzheim floodwaters destroyed roads and railroad tracks, cutting off residents from the outside world. In extreme cases, police, fire and rescue, and armed forces units had to airlift residents from rooftops by helicopter.
While rescue workers are exhausted from grueling and deadly round-the-clock work, police have warned against “flood tourism” — telling outsiders to stay away. “They make affected residents feel like they are in a zoo,” as Lars Brummer of the Koblenz Police Department told regional public broadcaster SWR. “They can also hinder rescue workers.”
Hundreds of families have lost everything and become displaced. The cities of Cologne and Bonn in North Rhine-Westphalia have set up emergency accommodations for evacuees and aid organizations have begun collecting donations and recruiting volunteers for what will be massive repair operations.
Local media have reported catastrophic damage to infrastructure, public property and private businesses. Rhineland-Palatinate Finance Minister Doris Ahnen promised tax waivers to flood victims. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the livelihood of many families in Germany, some victims might need much more than that to get back on their feet again.
As dramatic as THW’s operations often are, becoming a member of the volunteer organization is less so. Anyone can join, no matter what profession they are in. While the entry age for junior teams is 10 years, members must be 17 years old to enter active service on senior teams.
All volunteers undergo technical training where they learn how to use chain saws, cutters and grinders. Some basics of materials science are also taught, as well as first-aid and rescue techniques. The THW rewards the efforts of volunteers by providing equipment and protective gear for free. In addition, the state-funded agency reimburses travel costs and lost wages during operations and covers insurance costs for its members.
This article was adapted from German.