eppr - Interview with Ole Kristian Bjerkemo, EPPR Chair

Interview with Ole Kristian Bjerkemo, EPPR Chair

15 February 2024
Ole Kristian Bjerkemo may be the newest Chair of the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR), but EPPR is no stranger to him. Ole Kristian has a long experience in the field of emergency prevention, preparedness and response, even having been Executive Secretary, Vice-Chair and Chair of EPPR in the past. Now he is once again stepping up as EPPR Chair during a challenging time as the Arctic Council begins resuming project work. He brings with him a long history with the Working Group, strong expertise in the field and motivation to get work moving again. Learn more about Ole Kristian’s background, his ambitions and an outlook on EPPR’s work over the next two year

What is your background, and how has it prepared you for your role as EPPR Chair?

I currently work as International Advisor at the Norwegian Coastal Administration, Kystverket. I’ve been with the Norwegian Coastal Administration for many years, and that combined with my experience in Arctic affairs has well prepared me for my role as the current Chair for EPPR.

I’ve also been engaged in EPPR’s work for a long time. I attended my first EPPR meeting back in 2007. I’ve held several roles within the Working Group, including Executive Secretary, Vice-Chair and I even served four years as EPPR Chair during the previous Danish and Canadian Chairmanships. So I’m very familiar with EPPR, its project work and the Arctic Council, which proves to be useful as we navigate these challenging times coming out of the Arctic Council pause.

What’s one of your most memorable Arctic experiences?

There are many memorable experiences. I had the opportunity to participate in a trip around Svalbard as part of training for novice civil servants working in the Arctic. It was a really useful course where we got to see and experience the beautiful Arctic nature around Svalbard, and also learn a lot from experts on different matters related to the environment, climate change and cultural heritage. On that trip we crossed the 80 degrees north latitude and they held a little ceremony where they poured a bucket of cold water on top of our heads. That was a very cold but very memorable experience.

What inspires you about EPPR’s work?

I’ve worked in the field of emergency prevention, preparedness and response for basically my whole life, and yet I still feel as though I’m always learning. The work we’re doing in EPPR covers those topics, but I’m constantly learning because we delve into emerging issues I haven’t worked with before. For example, wildland fires and other natural disasters. There are just so many things to learn from skilled colleagues and experts in addition to the areas I feel that I can cover very well with my own experience. It keeps me inspired to learn more.

What are your ambitions as new EPPR Chair?

Coming out of the Arctic Council pause, we are following the guidelines for the resumption of Working Group work received from the Norwegian Chairship of the Arctic Council. Our ambition is of course to assist in fulfilling the Norwegian Chairship program, highlighting all the topics that are covered by EPPR. There are many activities outlined in EPPR’s work plan, and coming out of the pause, I hope we are able to advance most of them over the next two years.

We also strive to cooperate closely and strengthen the cooperation with the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF). This is also the ambition of the Norwegian Chairship of the Arctic Council, as outlined in the Chairship program. In 2021, the Arctic Council and the ACGF signed a Statement of Cooperation and EPPR has been designated to strengthen cooperation between our two entities. This cooperation is also important as EPPR has a central role in implementing two agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Council: the 2011 Agreement on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic and the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic.

I also look forward to working closely with the Permanent Participants and Observers. The inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge in emergency prevention, preparedness and response is something I hope we can bring a step forward. Another example is the UArctic, which I see as a really inspiring institution that could help the emergency preparedness community improve for future incidents that may occur in the Arctic.

EPPR is also helping to arrange a large Arctic emergency preparedness conference in 2025. This conference will be comprehensive and touch on many aspects of emergency preparedness and different types of emergencies. I think this will be a highlight of EPPR’s work and the Norwegian Chairship.

How does EPPR’s work align with Norway’s overarching Arctic Council Chairship priorities?

EPPR’s work aligns very well with Norway’s priorities. Under Norway’s Oceans priority, the Chairship has a focus on strengthening cooperation on emergency preparedness and safe shipping in the Arctic. I already mentioned our ambition to strengthen cooperation with the ACGF, and EPPR has a number of projects that relate to maritime emergency preparedness, prevention and response. One project that I could highlight is the new shoreline phase of the Circumpolar Oil Spill Response Viability Analysis (S-COSRVA) tool that uses data to determine the best and most effective oil spill response techniques based on environmental conditions at the time of the spill.

I hope that we can also hold an exercise during the Chairship, if the situation allows us to do that. Even a small scale exercise focused on testing notification systems and modifying operational routines for the two agreements related to search and rescue and oil spills that EPPR has a responsibility to follow up on.

Could you provide us with an outlook on what EPPR will work on during the next two years?

A big focus for EPPR will be the Arctic emergency preparedness conference that we are planning to hold in March 2025. During that conference, we hope to cover many diverse topics that EPPR works on, and we also hope to facilitate productive discussions with international experts, Indigenous Peoples’ representatives and stakeholders that are involved in emergency preparedness in the region.

As for project work, we have some activities ongoing that handle radiation incidents, which can be very complicated depending on the scale of the disaster. So this is definitely an important topic, but a challenging one. Earlier this year the Norwegian Coastal Administration, in cooperation with Norwegian search and rescue and radiation authorities, ran an international exercise here in Norway that highlighted the different challenges related to shipping and radiation. I hope we can improve our international cooperation on the topic via EPPR, through exercises and other activities.

Overall, it's important that we have close cooperation across all Arctic States and Permanent Participants. When it comes to emergency incidents, assistance may be needed across borders. Capacity building, information sharing and training exercises, but also personal relationships that are built through such activities and collaboration will allow us to do a better job if an incident occurs.

The interview was originally published at Arctic Council website in November 2023.