The “Discovery” of Vulnerable Population Groups – And how their Needs are addressed

In the years 2002, 2006, and 2013 the Elbe region, particularly within the area of the German federal state of Saxony, was hit by devastating floods.

The “Discovery” of Vulnerable Population Groups – And how their Needs are addressed

These disasters sparked an increased interest in the special needs of vulnerable population groups during disasters and caused the development of dedicated programs to assist particularly vulnerable people. In this contribution to the BuildERS-blog I want to give a brief overview on how the particular needs during disasters of especially vulnerable population groups were first recognized and how the German Red Cross (GRC) so far has responded to them with dedicated research programs.



Growing awareness for the needs of vulnerable population groups

The flood of 2002 During the reappraisal of the flood from 2002 a report first noted and critically discussed the utter lack of special evacuation procedures for retirement and nursery homes during the flood (Kirchbach, Franke & Biele, 2002). Consequently, they recommended the development of dedicated evacuation plans for these institutions and the establishment of dedicated and specially prepared emergency shelters for these population groups. While the authors therefore paid some attention to the particular needs of especially vulnerable population groups, it should also be noted, that the recommendations made in the


Pirna during the flood of 2013; Source: Dr. Bernd Gross - Used under CC BY-SA 3.0

report mostly focused on the needs of the general population and gave particularly vulnerable population groups only a passing note.

While the flood of 2006 again reached significant dimensions, it was a lot less devastating than the previous flood from 2002, particularly because all dikes in the affected areas were able to withstand the flood. Consequently, it also didn’t cause a comparable level of investigations into disaster management strategies and no particular attention was paid to the special needs of vulnerable population groups in the wake of this disaster.


The flood of 2013

But already in June 2013, the areas bordering on the Elbe river, and many other areas in central Europe, were hit by another large flooding event that also fulfilled the characteristics of a “flood of the century”. This disaster again sparked a sweeping investigation into possible ways how the damage caused by the flood could have been reduced and how comparable disaster can be averted, or at least managed better, in the future (DKKV, 2015). In addition, the investigation of 2013 also seized the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the measures recommended by the investigation of 2002. The report concluded that most recommendations made by the report in 2002 were indeed successfully implemented and that the accompanying problems therefore were reduced since the last huge flood.

But the authors didn’t limit themselves to the evaluation of previous recommendations, they also developed new ones of their own based on observations made during the 2013 flood. While in general again only limited attention was given to vulnerable groups (for example deaf people) and no special recommendations were made regarding any specific needs for assistance by vulnerable population groups, the authors also developed some recommendations, that can be understood as starting points for the development of flood prevention measures specifically aimed at vulnerable population groups.

On the one hand the authors made the recommendation, that private provisions should be considered as part of public planning. Interestingly, the heterogeneity of the public and that different groups have different needs and capabilities for making provisions was also pointed out. The authors thereby hinted at the differing vulnerability of population groups.

In addition, while reviewing the evacuations that took place during the 2013 flood the report pointed out, that relief organizations criticized the lack of available support capacities for the evacuated people, so that they can adequately care for the evacuees. It also noted the importance of adequate long-term psycho-social support for the flood victims. While these recommendations generally can benefit every flood victim they could be of special importance for members of vulnerable groups. The authors also explicitly pointed out the importance of keeping the needs of “special groups like elderly, sick or people in need of nursing care” especially in mind. But they did not further expand on this consideration. Still, the idea that different population groups need specific kinds of attention by rescue services was also carried over to considerations by the DKKV (2015) regarding communication strategies.

Finally, the authors stated, as an overarching principle, that hazard and risk analyses should always be kept up-to-date and continuously monitored to adapt them to new social and natural developments, like the ongoing climate- and demographic change. The report therefore recognized the possibility of such developments affecting the vulnerability of social groups and thereby can be seen as a starting point for the development of a discourse regarding the differing vulnerability and needs of social groups during disasters within Germany.

While the DKKV (2015) report only paid limited attention to the needs of vulnerable population groups, the 2013 flood also inspired other reports, that focused on the situation of vulnerable population groups during the flood and contributed to the development of a better understanding of their special needs. A good example for such a report was provided by Bachmann (2013), who in detail and from a firsthand perspective described the situation and experience of a deaf person during the 2013 flood. Overall, the author laments that the needs of deaf persons so far have only insufficiently been considered during the preparations for disasters and within disaster relief plans.

Efforts to address the special needs of vulnerable population groups

In 2013 the GRC faced significant challenges during the evacuation of as well as the support operation for people in need of care and their caring relatives (German Red Cross, 2018b). This situation created the demand by members of the organization for more research into ways to strengthen the resilience and self-help capacity of the population during disaster relief efforts. It also created a demand for researching ways to improve rescue, evacuation, and support operations for older people receiving ambulatory care at home during disasters. These demands caused the creation of two research projects: INVOLVE and KOPHIS.



INVOLVE, while looking into ways to strengthen the population’s resilience and self-help capacities during disasters, identified three main factors relevant to achieve this aim (German Red Cross, 2018a). The first major factor is related with another development taking place in parallel with the increasing focus on the needs of vulnerable population groups: The increasing prevalence of unaffiliated volunteers during disasters. This kind of disaster volunteers differs from classic volunteers by lacking a formal and long-term association with disaster relief organizations as well as getting active during disasters on their own and for a relatively short-term timeframe in a highly project-oriented way. They are also not directly affected by the disaster themselves. Furthermore, they also normally don’t have a formal training in disaster relief operation procedures and organize their activities mostly on their own, often through social networks (Detsches Rotes Kreuz, 2014).

The increasing prevalence of unaffiliated volunteers during disasters now coincides with the need for sufficient numbers of volunteers that are willing to help in case of a disaster, the first major factor identified by INVOLVE. In addition to multiple efforts that aim on recruiting new disaster management volunteers from social groups that are still underrepresented as disaster volunteers, the GRC also tries to ensure the availability of a sufficient number of volunteers during disaster relief operations by improving the inclusion of new forms of volunteering (like unaffiliated volunteers) in disaster management efforts (German Red Cross, 2018a).

As the second major factor, knowledge about the target groups of disaster assistance and their needs was identified. This factor for increasing resilience can be outlined by two key questions: “Who needs help when crises and disaster strikes?” and “What are the needs of the people affected by crises and disaster?” Through these two questions the importance of correctly recognizing vulnerable social groups and their special needs is transferred into practically measures contributing to achieving this aim.

Furthermore, the GRC also stresses the need to correctly assess the actual needs of the vulnerable population members and not simply base their need assessment on the assumptions of the helpers. The third and final important factor identified during the INVOLVE project is the existence of a network that connects different locally relevant actors of disaster management. Such a network allows the actors to work together easily and quickly in case of a crisis or catastrophe. It should facilitate the connection between the different areas of operation within an organization, the connection with other organizations working on disaster managements and with organizations working with people that are particularly vulnerable (for example health providers and nursing services). Furthermore, civil society actors, like unaffiliated volunteer groups, pastors, and majors, should also be included into the network. In addition to the key factors contributing to the population’s resilience and self-help capacities, INVOLVE also identified two key challenges to it: The decreasing number of (regular) volunteers that are getting involved in disaster management efforts and the continuous sociodemographic change, that drastically affects the composition of society, particularly through its aging, and therefore its needs in case of a disaster. While the first challenge is addressed by the already mentioned efforts to increase the number of regular volunteers and in particular by trying to better include unaffiliated volunteers in disaster relief operations, the second challenge should be addressed through the developments of networks between emergency services and external actors active and invested within local communities before a disaster occurs. Such networks can help disaster relief organization to improve their knowledge about the needs of people potentially affected by a disaster. It also enables services to provide affected population groups with the help they require and improves their capacity for self-help during times of disasters.


Source: Paramedics help an old lady; Source: Jan Woitas/dpa



While INVOLVE focused more on the improvement of the situation of all kinds of vulnerable population groups during disasters, KOPHIS paid special attention to the needs of the elderly during disaster (German Red Cross, 2018b). This aim was inspired by the complication experienced during the evacuation and support operations for elderly persons in need of care during the 2013 flood. The reason for these problems was the unavailability of information regarding their total number within a certain area, their address, and their special needs.

As a starting measure, the vulnerability of the elderly and people in need of care can be decreased by encouraging them and / or the persons responsible for their well-being (for example nursing services) to develop and prepare emergency plans in order to increase their resilience. Ideally, these plans are developed in collaboration with disaster response organizations, like the local fire brigade. In addition, both emergency and nursing services should be sensitized for the special dangers that disasters pose to elderly people in need of care and the special assistance they require under such circumstances. Furthermore, the connections and collaboration between emergency services and local health and nursing providers should also be strengthened before a disaster occurs.

While the above-mentioned actions are all effective in reducing the vulnerability of elderly and infirm population groups, the key recommendations made by the KOPHIS-project was the establishment or strengthening of regional social networks. Such networks can help vulnerable people receive assistance from family, friends, and neighbors in case of a disaster and to share knowledge about the address and the living condition of vulnerable people. In turn, such networks can also help communities by enabling elderly people to share their skills and knowledge with the rest of the community. Furthermore, such networks can also overcome the inability of classical disaster relief organizations to sufficiently deal with the new challenges posed by the changed social framework and their limited resources by improving the effectivity of their measures through better collaboration with local actors, like emergency and nursery services. Furthermore, a network also makes it easier to deal with problems that involve multiple actors by facilitating the collaboration among them. Getting vulnerable people directly involved in the planning process also ensures their needs are correctly assessed. Finally, the inclusion of all relevant actors into a dialogue also prevents silo thinking.


The recognition of the special needs of vulnerable social groups and overcoming the traditional perception of the population as a relatively undifferentiated collective is still a relatively new development within disaster management. But some promising approaches to address the problem have already emerged. In particular, establishing and strengthening local social networks that included all involved parties (e.g. the vulnerable people themselves, disasters relief organizations, nursery services, civil society actors…) appears to be a particularly effective way forward. But still significant research gaps exist, particularly  regarding the oversimplifying notion of  “vulnerable groups” as homogenous social collectives as well as the intersectionality of vulnerability and its dependence on the disaster type people are facing.  


Author: Peter Windsheimer (German Red Cross)



Deutsches Rotes Kreuz (ed.) (2014). Die Rolle von ungebundenen HelferInnen bei der Bewältigung von Schadensereignissen – Teil 1. Berlin

DKKV‐Deutsches Komitee Katastrophenvorsorge. (2015). Das Hochwasser im Juni 2013: Bewährungsprobe für das Hochwasserrisikomanagement in Deutschland. Schriftenreihe des DKKV, 53

German Red Cross (ed.) (2018a). Strengthening of Community Resilience – The German Red Cross Disaster Services. Recommendations for Action Based on Research Results. Berlin

German Red Cross (ed.) (2018b). The Vulnerable Group “the Elderly and those Needing Care” during Crises, Large-scale Emergencies, and Disasters. Findings and Possible Solutions – Moving toward a Socio-spatial Approach to Civil Protection. Berlin

Kirchbach, H. P., Franke, S., & Biele, S. (2002). Bericht der unabhängigen Kommission der Sächsischen Staatsregierung