Rescue services in Russia should be fully professional – minister

Rescuers in such a huge country like Russia should in no way be amateurs, says the country’s Emergencies Minister Sergey Shoigu, who spoke exclusively with RT.

RT: Thank you for taking time to talk to us. People call you the chief rescuer of Russia. When was the last time you rescued somebody personally?

Sergey Shoigu: I think it was last year. I was coming home from work. I saw a man hit by a car. Drivers were arguing among themselves whose fault it was, and the man was still on the pavement. We put him in our car and took him to a hospital.

But to me that's absolutely normal. I don’t regard it as something special. Ours is a big country, and the main thing is to organize the rescue service. I think it shouldn’t be amateurish, and our experience confirms this.

RT: Have you ever been rescued yourself?

Sergey Shoigu: This was in 1992-1993 in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Trans-Dniester. There were many different situations. Sometimes we had to clear mines. I’m grateful to an old man who was a watchman at a water station. We went there to supply a city with water, and he kept shouting to us. He was shouting for so long that he lost his voice. Still, he managed to warn us that the station was mined. In fact, we had already entered the building by that time, so we had to get out walking backwards, tracing our own steps.

RT: Does it ever get really scary?

Sergey Shoigu: Of course. I’m a man like anybody else. Overcoming one’s fear is a part of our job. We don’t want our rescuers to rush headlong into the fire. Even in our law on the rescue service, we have a line that says, “A rescue worker has a right to risk as long as it is justified”. If the risk is justified, then you need to overcome your fear.

RT: Why was it that one of the first steps the reformist government made back in the 1990s was to create the Emergencies Ministry?

Sergey Shoigu: Let me remind you first that I have been in charge of this agency since the Soviet era. There were two huge catastrophes. The first was the Chernobyl meltdown. It made the government realize that the country was not prepared to deal with such situations, with nuclear catastrophes. The second, of course, was the earthquake in Armenia. These two events – tragic as they were – helped found our agency.

RT: Since your Ministry was established, the number of emergencies increased dramatically. According to the statistics published on your site, in 1991 there were 334 emergencies, while in 2006 the figure had reached 2847.

Sergey Shoigu: This tendency applies to the whole world. There are several reasons. These figures include both natural and technological catastrophes. As for the increase in the number of natural catastrophes, I’d say a banality: it’s because of man’s increased interference with nature –often thoughtless and sometimes even barbaric. Of course, climate change has a major impact on this. Some call it global warming, but it’s not just a matter of warming. Warming alone causes glaciers to move and causes abnormally warm winters.

Also, this causes serious changes in river depths and lake depths. This reduces the permafrost territory – and I should remind you that up to 80% of our hydrocarbon reserves are in the permafrost zone. .

RT: Rather grim prospects.

Sergey Shoigu: It's not just grim…

RT: What are the most important things that need to be done?

Sergey Shoigu: First of all, let me tell you what Russia does. Russia has done a lot of research, and there was a special session of the Russian Security Council which reviewed the results of this research. The government made some serious decisions concerning the economy, concerning the environment, and concerning safety. Serious funds were allocated for these purposes. This involves developing a tanker fleet, deploying navigation stations, creating rescue centers along the Northern Sea Route. In other words, Russia takes a comprehensive approach to this subject. I am confident that other countries should have the same kind of attitude towards this problem.

RT: What are the most alarming forecasts at the global level?

Sergey Shoigu: I already mentioned the most important forecast: it has to do with global warming.

Next, we tend to forget about a phenomenon which has caused serious damage in many countries. It’s called El Niño. It starts off the coast of Peru and spreads throughout the planet. It has to do with the Pacific Ocean’s warming. It causes biological resources to flee; this causes further climate change, and so on.

Now, if we speak about our country, we have a difficult seismic situation in the Far East, primarily in the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka. In the Trans-Baikal region, it seems that seismic tension has been discharged. We just hope it remains that way. Yet earthquakes in China indicate the danger may remain for a number of years. The main threat though, as always, comes from human activities.

RT: I’d like to go back to humanitarian operations. You have mentioned there were three countries that were particularly difficult. What were these three countries? And why were they difficult?

Sergey Shoigu: You know, China perhaps was the most difficult one. First, this was one of the largest earthquakes in recent years. Many people, great losses, a lot of people lost their homes and were left without help.

The scope of the rescue operations mounted by the Chinese government was unprecedented. Doctors, rescue workers, the military – everybody was involved. Our rescue workers, our doctors, our psychologists also joined in. Suffice to say that following orders from our president and our government, the Emergencies Ministry set up a camp for 40,000 people. This was a lot. This was a major operation, and all the departments of our ministry were involved.

Then, there was an operation in South Ossetia. Lots of refugees, practically all utilities damaged or destroyed: no water, no electricity, no gas… well, there’s still no gas now… a shortage of food, practically no health care with hospitals destroyed. We had to recover all these things. This was a huge job that required colossal efforts, both physically, psychologically, and financially. Finally, there is a third area of our work, and it continues to this day. Last year, on the orders of our president, we began to supply aid to Palestine, and we continue to do the same this year. What I mean is mostly refugees, the wounded, and everybody who suffered from the military operation in Gaza.

RT: And what does the Russian Emergencies Ministry look like in the international context? Are there any crucial needs?

Sergey Shoigu: I can’t say there is anything crucial. Of course, we lack some things. But our government and the President pay a great deal of attention to our Ministry, to our structure, the safety of people’s lives. We have a sizeable budget. You probably would not think of me as a good leader if I was happy about everything, saying that we have everything and there are no deficiencies. Of course we lack some things. And as far as our position in the world, how we compare ourselves to our colleagues – I think it is not appropriate to talk about ourselves. But in interviews from previous years you will be able to find what my colleagues had to say about us. Our colleagues from NATO, from Italy, France, the United States… So I will not answer this question, I will let them speak instead.

RT: Judging by your tone of voice, these are flattering comments?

Sergey Shoigu: Well, they are more of an evaluation. But the results were very positive.

RT: What is more important for you as the leader – rescue, prognosis or technical equipment?

Sergey Shoigu: Any leader is also a person, and any organization is like a big body. So if I ask you – what is more important to you: the heart, the head, the legs, or the hands?

RT: The heart.

Sergey Shoigu: The heart you say. But you can’t live without the head, either, right? So your question contains the answer as well – everything is important. Of course, we can leave just the reaction sector. The signal comes in, and we go and deal with the situation. But we have been implementing monitoring and conducting prognosis very actively in the last five-to-six years. This saves us huge resources and allows us to be more efficient and proactive about different threats. As far as equipment goes, let me remind you about the earthquake in Armenia – people crying, useless forces and helpless men. They were helpless not because of a lack of strength, but because they did not have the resources. They couldn’t break concrete with bare hands, couldn’t lift the blocks without cranes. This is something that always scares me – that there might be a situation when I won’t be able to rescue people. I will want to do it, but won’t be able to. So I consider technical equipment very important. We could try to set up the priorities – the actual rescue would be at the top, proactive measure in second place, and equipment on the third. But how can you do the rescue without the equipment? It’s like they used to say during World War 2 – you can’t go against tanks with bare hands. Same thing here.

RT: You often see people in emergency situations. Is there any certain national factor of behavior?

Sergey Shoigu: Of course there is. You know, it is very difficult to conduct rescue operations in countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, in that region. It is difficult, because people there are very emotional. They sincerely want to help. And the first thing that we usually have to do is to establish some basic order, so that rescuers can work using their equipment. In their attempts to help, they fill up the whole space, and it is hard to get them out of there. Of course, there are certain issues when you work in Arab countries, where there are special laws. Like when you have to rescue a woman. For example, I am thinking about the earthquake in Turkey. So you need to have a person who will help you deal with the cultural aspects. Naturally, you can’t see a woman naked, it is understandable. But it is possible in our country, if it is for the sake of saving her. Whereas there, someone who has the right needs to cover the woman. Of course there are serious issues when it comes down to using narcotic pain killers. There are different laws in different countries – in some places you can face serious punishment for bringing and using this medicine.

RT: How plausible it is to realise your idea of a World Emergencies Ministry?

Sergey Shoigu: This is a very serious issue. There are several departments within the United Nations that deal with organizing rescue operations in serious emergency situations. And they, of course, do their job. But along with my colleagues from other countries I am not satisfied with the speed of their reaction to major emergency situations. This has been discussed several times. So we think there is a need for some sort of international agency, coordination center for emergency situations. There is a need for a European agency. Yes I think we need it.

RT: You are not a minister who just does paperwork and participates in talks. You personally go and head rescue operations. Have you ever rescued people from different camps in conflict zones?

Sergey Shoigu: Of course. We have had several interesting operations. God forbid that rescuers or doctors should ever think of saving representatives of a certain faith first. Our main goal, and I say it almost every day – saving human lives, regardless of a person’s nationality, political views, religion, colour of his hair or skin. Our main task it to save human lives. We are trying to maintain our so-called brotherhood and some sort of political independence. We are trying to keep our right to save human lives, regardless of views and nationality. We really treasure that, it’s very important.