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No money, no rescuer, hang on!

Excel, it turns out, can be addictive and overdosing. How else to explain the Estonian Minister of Finance’s comments that since the Estonian Ministry of the Interior received more money in the crises, now is the time for them to cut more than others in proportion.

Crisis allocations from the supplementary budget and the reserve are, in essence, survival grants. They are not intended to build capacity on a permanent, long-term basis. The money given to internal security, which has been spent in recent crises, for example, on reintroducing temporary border controls, dealing with war refugees from Ukraine or buying air raid sirens, has become a kind of strange bargaining chip.

One could even say that, in the recent rhetoric of the Estonian Minister of Finance, it has become like a loan from the reserve to the Ministry of the Interior, which now has to be repaid through budget cuts. Because – jackals, how dare you get more money than the others?

When we talk about the capabilities and salaries in the field of internal security, we have to understand that we are talking about jobs where people risk their lives every day and are also responsible for the lives and health of others. Even outside a crisis. For rescue workers to be able to do this, we need really excellent and motivated people.

There are strict criteria for a reason – not everyone is cut out to be a policeman or a rescuer. The training is extensive, and if anyone thinks that rescuers sit idle between deployments, they are mistaken. You have to keep your equipment in good condition, but you also have to make sure that you know how to carry out all the tasks you need to do – that means constant training.

It’s their everyday job, but let’s not forget what happens in a crisis. To recall, in recent years they have had to deal with the temporary reintroduction of border patrols, but also, for example, the management of the isolation between Saaremaa and the mainland during the acute COVID-19 crisis, not to mention snowstorms, oil spills and so on.

Police officers have had to deal with social distancing control, but also, for example, with incidents such as MEM Cafe, or helping Ukrainian war refugees. The emergency call centre is also overwhelmed, for example, an acquaintance called in the middle of the night to hear an “you’re on hold, we’ll call you back” style automated response.

Rescuers and policemen are not unskilled workers

It cannot be assumed that the volunteer forces will solve all the human resources problems in the field of rescue, not all tasks can be delegated to them. For example, certain tasks cannot be performed by volunteer rescuers, and there are limits to the activities that can be performed by auxiliary police officers.

There is a reason for this – an auxiliary force that has undergone 40 hours of training cannot be the equivalent of a specialist who has spent years in in-depth training. Consequently, these auxiliaries are not entitled to carry out all the tasks (which is how it should be, also for their own safety), nor is it possible to build up an internal police force on a purely voluntary basis.

Think about this the next time you see an ambulance passing by – there are at least 8 large cabinets with all sorts of tools that the team, both individually and collectively, must be able to use in their sleep.

While for health workers the acute crisis was brought on by the last big waves of COVID, rescue workers are directly affected by the war in Ukraine. This is both in terms of the need to assist refugees and to increase the capacity of their own sector.

If you talk to rescuers or policemen, there is a real concern – how are we supposed to move forward with our normal work and the capacity we need to do it, if the sector is expected to cut back?

In a situation where the real evacuation capacity of the country is estimated at 10 000 people, there are no shelters, and there is no increase in the capacity for specific rescue work (e.g. rescuing people from rubble or demining), the planned cut is in no way in touch with reality. On the contrary, as Minister of the Interior Läänemets said, more money is needed.

Hang in there, Excel can handle anything

To make cuts in the area of internal security in the current security situation based on an Excel spreadsheet is seriously puzzling, to say the least. It seems that Excel is a kind of alternate reality, where anything is possible in the budget lines, and what happens in the budget discussions in the cells is a masterclass in bureaucratic magic. 

As a vivid example, in the field of internal security, money can be saved on commanders of the fire depots by sharing one commander between two or more fire depots. The fact that a commander’s time is significantly consumed by bouncing between two sites and two teams, and there is a solid negative impact on the long-term performance of both teams, is a small matter that does not fit into Excel’s formula.

Paper can take it all, and so can Excel

Have these Excel lines ever taken into account what happens when an overworked civil servant who also works in the private sector comes on shift to make ends meet? Probably not, because in the world of Excel, there are only average people on average salaries, working in just one organisation.

The budget cutting process is nothing more than a decision-making process to try to find a solution to the lack of money. However, this cannot be done with blinders on, without taking into account the reality that the current security situation in itself precludes any cuts in the area of internal security.

Finally, it is worth asking – if we are talking about every state institution is in need to make proportionate cuts, is the Estonian Ministry of Defence expected to do the same? Nobody even dares to talk about taking anything away from national defence. That is how it should be, but if the whole concept of national defence is build on the word front and the people of Estonia are told, taking the example1 of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – просто денег нет, вы держитесь здесь, вам всего доброго, хорошего настроения и здоровья! (there’s just no money, you hang in there, all the best to you, good mood and health!), we are dealing with a serious and antidote-needing Excel overdose.

× The opinion piece was first published on 31.08.2023 on the Postimehe web portal and on 01.09.2023 as an article in paper format. Photo: euro shirt (Pexels, 2016).

1 [Anon.], 2016. Medvedev’s Awkward Crimea Moment: ‘There’s Just No Money. But You Take Care!’. Radio Free Europe, 24.05.2016. (accessed 29.08.2023).

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