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The THW: 50 Years of Service

August 15, 2001, by Bill Cawthon
(published August 22, 2001)

If you have spent much time looking at catalogs of 1:87 scale vehicles from the German and Austrian manufacturers, you have no doubt seen a variety of blue vehicles lettered for the Technisches Hilfswerk or THW. I'm sure some of you are very familiar with the THW, but I'm willing to bet that a lot more are not.

Formed in 1950, the THW is the disaster relief agency of the German government. Its charter mandates that it will provide engineering and technical support to the federal and state governments and humanitarian assistance abroad. At home, the THW combines some of the functions performed in the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others normally assigned to the National Guard. However, unlike FEMA, the THW conducts and manages the actual rescue and rebuilding operations, supplying on-site technical expertise, manpower and equipment. It also responds to a wider variety of emergencies, like train wrecks and building disasters. Moreover, unlike the National Guard, the THW is strictly a civil organization. Other duties commonly associated with the National Guard, such as maintenance of order in times of civil unrest, are carried out by the BGS (Bundesgrenzschutz or Federal Border Guard), a national police agency. In fulfillment of its international mission, the THW works with other disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross and various agencies of the United Nations. THW teams have been dispatched to Mexico, Columbia, Somalia and Taiwan as well as helping Germany's European neighbors like France and Switzerland. It has also had a continuing role in Bosnia and Kosovo.

As with the National Guard, the backbone of the THW is its corps of volunteers. The THW actually has more vehicles (6,000) than full-time employees (850). Roughly 40,000 volunteer engineers, technicians and specialists in a variety of fields perform the bulk of the real work of the THW. There are 810 THW platoons in Germany, each with 40 volunteers and the equipment they require for their assigned tasks. In addition to the resources based in Germany, the THW has a permanent facility and equipment depot in Nairobi, Kenya to support ongoing efforts in Africa.

Building on the professional skills they already possess, THW personnel receive additional training in planning and managing relief and recovery operations. These skills are important because of the method in which the THW works. When the THW teams are initially deployed, they consult with the local authorities to identify the most pressing needs and effect the needed repairs. Working with community leaders, THW teams train local citizens in the skills needed for the project. The THW volunteers then work with their crews to get the job done.

The THW is chartered to perform tasks that include recovery operations, such as rescue and salvage, and restoration of vital infrastructure requirements like safe water and electrical power. The THW also handles major engineering tasks like building temporary bridges and clearing blocked waterways. THW volunteers help rebuild homes, schools and other structures following natural disasters, war, or civil disorder. They even built a hospital in Russia. At home, the THW is also the agency charged with handling maritime emergencies such as oil spills in German waters.

To assist in the aftermath of natural disasters like earthquakes, the THW has a rapid deployment search and rescue team called SEEBA. SEEBA consists of 70 members including a medical team as well as specially trained search dogs. Because the chances of finding survivors dwindles rapidly after about 72 hours, the SEEBA team and its equipment can be ready to fly anywhere in the world within six hours of being called up. Since they carry their equipment with them, they are ready for deployment upon arrival.

The array of equipment used by the THW is impressive, ranging from passenger cars to heavy trucks and earthmoving equipment. There are mobile kitchens since THW volunteers must be prepared go to their sites ready to work for days without resupply. In addition to conventional trucks and tractor-trailer rigs like Herpa's No. 147385, the THW fleet includes military-style trucks because it must often operate in areas without roads (road building is another THW specialty) or where roads have been damaged as in Bosnia and Kosovo. Traditionally, all THW vehicles have been a dark blue but this is changing for some of its rolling stock, especially passenger cars and light trucks. As with German police and fire services, the THW is changing their fleets to white vehicle. A good example of this is Herpa's new 045360 Ford Galaxy model in THW livery, due in October of this year. In fact, the Galaxy model is a good representation of the THW's direction in more than graphics. Both the THW and the BGS are moving away from cars and adopting the Galaxy as their basic people-mover. The THW Galaxys will have blue markings; the BGS will adopt the green markings used by regular civilian police agencies. For now, there are still a number of Opels and other cars in service.

The Technisches Hilfswerk is an amazing organization. You can learn more about the THW by visiting their website.

If you plan to be in the Chicago area on Saturday, September 8, perhaps I'll see you at the 1/87 Vehicle Club's Midwest Meet. It will be taking place at the Doubletree Inn across from the RCHTA/MRIA Chicago trade show in Rosemont. For more information, go to the club website

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005