Europe is on course to launch a common rulebook establishing a crack multinational firefighting force by early summer, building on the unprecedented level of international co-operation last year when catastrophic forest fires ravaged Greece.

The new rules will mean offers of specialist firefighting assistance from EU member states - already co-ordinated through the European Commission's Civil Protection Mechanism - are now framed within 13 new response modules designed to organise a common system of readily deployable, pre-defined specialised clusters of personnel and equipment.

The plan to strengthen Europe's civil SOS infrastructure, which will include the medical aerial evacuation of disaster victims, was adopted by the Commission on 20 December and Europe's 27 member states now have until 13 May to signal their willingness to sign up to the new guidelines supporting the future rapid reaction force.

A senior EC source said that the latest effort to provide the most rapid and effective emergency response possible involved essentially developing a standardised technical framework with individual modules determining structure, resource and minimum capability requirements for any member state wanting to assist.

"The Commission has been working with member states over the last two years primarily to define the areas where modules would be useful, meeting with experts and well-informed specialists to define a common framework," he said.

"The modules that have been developed all rely really on the type of pre-existing national resources offered on a voluntary basis by EU member states and so they're not so very different from what member states organise already."

Modules, however, will also feature an outline of the necessary training in order for participating member states effectively to become interoperational with other EU nations' firefighting efforts and, furthermore, equivalent emergency modules.

Another new feature of the standardised approach will be that aerial firefighting modules involving EU helicopters and aircraft will not only become interoperable but also capable of operating outside the European Union.

"There is no obligation for participation, however. There could even be joint modules featuring co-operation between member states, similar in many ways to the existing co-operation in firefighting between France, Italy and Spain," said the source.

The EC Community Protection Mechanism budget has tripled in the last year. Annual spend will rise to €30 million ($44 million) by 2013 as part of the six-year €200 million initiative, with the European Parliament understood to be ready to vote for additional budgetary resources targeted at firefighting.

"The added value with the new module approach is that, as well as a lot more resources going into community protection, it will also improve co-ordination, essentially through training, exercises, technical workshops where common procedures will be defined," he said, adding that an area of special focus would be ground to air communications and how their effectiveness may be compromised by language and equipment factors.

The interoperability of a unified EU firefighting force will be tested this summer when FireFour, an EC pilot project led by France with the participation of Italy, Spain and Portugal, will run a full-scale joint earthquake and firefighting exercise.

Aerial forest firefighting module using helicopters

Capacity  Three helicopters with a capacity of 1,000 litres (264USgal) each.

 Ability to perform continuous operations.

Main components  Three helicopters with crew, to guarantee that at least two helicopters are operational at any time.

 Technical staff.

 4 water buckets or 3 releasing kids.

 1 maintenance set.

 1 spare parts set.

 2 rescue hoists.

 Communication equipment.

Deployment  Within maximum 3 hours

Aerial forest firefighting module using aircraft

Capacity  Two aircraft with a capacity of 3,000 litres each

 Ability to perform continuous operations.

Main components  Two aircraft.

 Three crews.

 Technical staff.

 Field maintenance kit.

 Communication equipment.

Deployment  Within maximum 3 hours

Medical aerial evacuation of disaster victims

Capacity  Capacity to transport 50 patients every 24 hours.

 Ability to fly day and night.

Main components  Helicopters/aircraft with stretchers.

Deployment  Within maximum 12 hours