Over the past several decades, naturally occurring and man-made disasters have increased in frequency and number, worldwide. In Europe, during the period 1980-2008, around 122,000 people were killed and 33 million negatively affected because of natural disasters.1 Countries such as France, Italy and Spain have been greatly impacted by disasters, while Sweden, Norway and Denmark have not suffered from major events.1,2

The nation-states’ health system is a key component of disaster management organization, and preparedness status of the health system is essential for an effective response to disasters.3,4 Where national and local health systems are not well prepared to deal with disasters, vulnerability and resilience at the community level becomes more pronounced.5

Preparedness is defined as “the knowledge and capacities developed by governments, professional response and recovery organizations, communities and individuals to effectively anticipate, respond to, and recover from, the impacts of likely, imminent or current hazard events or conditions”.6 Preparedness is achieved through a set of activities and foundations, such as planning, organization and training.7

Disaster Training Curriculum (DITAC) is a research project funded by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Program. The main aim of this project is to develop a holistic and standardized training curriculum for first responders and strategic/tactical crisis managers in the 27 European Union (EU) member states to enhance the level of preparedness in these countries.

The development of a standardized competency-based training curriculum requires a clear and comprehensive understanding of the condition of the disaster management system in the target communities. The first phase of the DITAC project and of this survey study is to evaluate the current state of preparedness and disaster management in all 27 EU countries.


This study is an observational, cross-sectional study. The survey was conducted between June and September 2012. All 27 EU countries were included in this study.

A standardized online survey instrument was developed and hosted on SurveyMonkey (SurveyMonkey LLC, Palo Alto, California USA). Survey design utilized a similar model from the toolkit for assessing health-system capacity for crisis management of the World Health Organization / European office.8 On the basis of experts’ consensus, 88 questions of disaster management relevance of the toolkit were selected and modified, to ensure optimal feasibility, for this survey. The questions were grouped in the following elements:

– Leadership and governance

– Logistics and operational support functions in emergencies

– Medical products and technology

– Health information

– Sub-national/Regional plans for crisis/MCIs

– Management of pre-hospital medical operations

– Hospital emergency-preparedness program

– Education and training

The survey questionnaire was delivered online to 3 professionals from each of the 27 EU countries identified as having inclusion criteria of 5 years of professional experience and tertiary level of education in health system management. These selectively included the president of the counties’ emergency medicine society, a health system stakeholder, and an expert in emergency management. All professionals were involved in various disciplines of health-system disaster preparedness and management, such as Emergency Medical Services, hospitals, and governmental offices for disaster management.

Answer to the questions was scored as 0 for No, 1 for partially complete and 2 as totally completed, however some questions were not scored because they were complementary questions to provide more details on the given element. The range of preparedness level was defined as 0-100%, categorized in three levels as: A (Acceptable), B (Transitional), C (Insufficient). The required action for each level was defined in Table 1.

Table 1- Classification of health system preparedness, based on the total score, and the required action
The score of preparedness The level of preparedness Required action
66-100% Level A: Acceptable It is likely that the disaster management system will effectively function in a disaster. It is recommended, however, to continue with measures to improve the preparedness level.
36-65% Level B: Transitional The preparedness of disaster management system will not be able to operate effectively during and after a disaster. Interventional measures are needed.
0-35% Level C: Insufficient Current preparedness of the disaster management system is impaired and unreliable during and after a disaster. Urgent intervention is needed.

Informed consent was obtained and all participants were informed they could refuse to participate or withdraw from the study at any time. Also, name, personal information and affiliation data of the participants were kept confidential.


The questionnaire was sent to 81 people in 27 EU countries. Response rate was 79.1%, which represented at least one person per country. Twenty four percent of the respondents were female.

In this study, the self-assessed average level of disaster management preparedness in the health systems of the 27 EU member states was 68%, classified as level A (Acceptable). Nevertheless, the level of preparedness was diverse among the EU countries (Figure 1). The highest level of preparedness was seen in the United Kingdom, Luxemburg, and Lithuania, as 84%, 84% and 83%, respectively. Portugal, Malta and Ireland reported lowest scores, as 42%, 44%, and 51%, respectively.

Fig. 1: The level of preparedness, in respect of disaster management, in 27 European Union countries

Two-thirds of EU countries were at acceptable level of disaster preparedness, and one-third were at transitional level. No country was categorized as having an insufficient level of preparedness in disaster management.

In EU country respondents, with regard to different elements of the disaster management system, the highest level of preparedness was seen in the health information element (86%), and the lowest level of preparedness was seen at both hospitals and education and training elements (54%) (Figure 2).

Fig. 2: Preparedness level of different element of disaster management system in whole European Union

Preparedness of EU respondents was categorized as “Acceptable”: a) leadership and governance; b) logistics and operational support;c) medical products and technology; d) health information; e) sub-national/ regional disaster plans; and f) pre-hospital medical operations.

On the other hand, preparedness was considered “Transitional” for elements: g) hospitals; and h) education and training, in whole EU.

No element was at the “Insufficient” preparedness level.

Existence of each of 88 preparedness items, categorized in 8 main elements, either completely or partially in EU health systems is summarized as Appendix 1.


At least 73% of EU countries have recently experienced an emergency or disaster.9 This demonstrates the importance of health emergency preparedness, prevention and response programs in Europe. Preparedness actions aim to build resiliency and capacity needed to efficiently and effectively manage all types of emergencies.6

This study, based on survey measures, shows evidence that the level of disaster management preparedness in the EU is considered “acceptable”, overall, by a slim level compared to the lower “transitional” level. Although similar EU-wide evaluation has not been reported, current results are supported by findings of a worldwide survey on health system preparedness by the WHO in which most of evaluated criteria were categorized “acceptable”, within 40%-80%.9 Also, a study on decontamination capability of medical systems showed a “weak” preparedness situation in EU member states.10

One can conclude that Europe overall lacks in the safety elements surveyed with regard to disaster occurrence. Around 1,200 naturally occurring disasters have happened in Europe within the past 3 decades which have affected millions of inhabitants.1 In case of a disaster, the most important goal for a community is the health and well-being of its people. Current borderline status of disaster preparedness in the EU health systems, especially those with transitional level of preparedness, needs intensive attention to reach at more reliable level.

The results of this survey supports that the health systems in EU are considered well prepared for disasters, by a cross section of professional disaster managers within their own countries, with respect to leadership and governance, logistics and operational support, medical products and technology, health information, pre-hospital medical operations, and planning at sub-national/ regional level.

On the basis of the authors’ knowledge, there is no similar published report on disaster preparedness of the health systems in all EU countries that either support or deny the survey study conclusions. However, it is necessary for EU member states to sustain the activities and plans to enhance health system readiness, even those elements that appear to be well-prepared. These efforts should be completed at national, regional and local levels.

On the basis of this survey, hospitals in EU countries are not well prepared to face disasters. This result is consistent with other studies, which show lack of preparedness in some hospitals of EU member states.1114 Hospitals are cornerstone of health systems, both during daily life and in disasters. In fact, hospitals are essential facilities for the maintenance of vital societal functions, specifically health and well-being of the population. Therefore the disruption or destruction of hospitals will have a significant impact in the member state outcomes as a result of the failure to maintain those vital functions.

It is critical for all EU communities to have well prepared hospitals to provide reliable medical services for victims and affected population. The use of standardized guidelines, such as WHO toolkits, may help the hospitals to reach an “acceptable” level of disaster preparedness. In addition, allocation of financial resources is crucial to the establishment and functioning of disaster preparedness and response programs in the health systems, including hospitals.8 It is recommended that the EU member states give a higher priority to financial support for hospital disaster preparedness programs.

This study suggests that there is a lack of education and training in disaster preparedness in the health systems of EU countries. In addition, the curricula and training materials are still not well harmonized across different stakeholders.Previous studies support this finding.4,15

Recognizing that education and training are essential elements of capacity building and a sense of resiliency in disaster management, the development of multidisciplinary core competencies, on the basis of international guidelines and standards, is a necessity for the EU health system to adopt in order to enhance the capacity for disaster preparedness.1619

Limitations: One limitation of the current study was the small sample size and sampling method. The position, experience and background of respondents are general in nature and self-determined. This factor may affect the validity and reliability of the collected information. However, this is a comprehensive study that included all EU member states. The results can be a useful baseline for future comparisons and be helpful for identifying gaps in disaster preparedness planning.

A second limitation is that the study data were gathered, analyzed and categorized on the basis of a survey questionnaire which had not been validated to ensure if it reflects measurable reality with respect to disaster management preparedness. However, there was consensus of the experts on the questionnaire items, and the study benefitted from the standardized toolkit of WHO that served as a model for this survey.

Finally, to ask participants to report the preparedness elements of their own country could result is some level of bias, either overestimation or underestimation of the preparedness level. However, it was not possible and acceptable to ask an expert to evaluate another country, in respect of disaster preparedness, through this survey. Also, all participants were experts in the health disaster field and well familiar with the status of their country. Therefore, the results should be accepted as realistic and valid.


This study showed that the preparedness level of EU countries is barely considered at an “acceptable” level. This should alert the EU country disaster and health system professionals to do more. Although some functions such as health information and pre-hospital system are at high level of preparedness, hospitals overall suffer from an insufficient level of preparedness. A lack of competency-based training and education is the main gap in health disaster preparedness in the EU.

The EU health system, in our considered opinion, requires a comprehensive strategic policy, as well as sufficient resources, to establish a comprehensive and standardized disaster management plan. A competency-based training curriculum for managers and first responders is a necessary first step basic action to reach that goal.

Competing Interests

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.