If at this moment a crisis explodes somewhere in the world involving Italian citizens, a highly-trained team in Rome, backed up by banks of sophisticated equipment, will be in action within seconds to locate and help them.

The team is based in the little-known crisis unit of the Italian foreign ministry. It is a smart, thickly-carpeted suite of rooms housed in a confidential area on the fifth floor of the enormous white Farnesina building overlooking the Olympic stadium.

Active 24-hours a day, one of its most recent exploits was the still secret part it played in the rescue of the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, held prisoner in Iraq for a month; but hers was only one of four emergencies then confronting the unit. In Venezuela, three Italians were being held hostage; in Colombia, a kidnapped Italian was feared dead; in Afghanistan, a plane had gone down killing three Italians. The unit had sent out carabinieri to bring back DNA samples. In one of its two operation rooms, their positions were picked out on a huge wall-screen facing experts manning positions set out in a horseshoe amid a neat jumble of computers, hotlines, satellite phones and high-definition video pictures of crisis hotpoints.

It was also coping with the aftermath of the December tsunami in south and south-east Asia, the most terrifying disaster the unit had ever tackled. In early March, a total of 70 Italians were still posted as missing, feared dead, 55 of them in Thailand and the rest in Sri Lanka. The number had been whittled down from an initial 600 thought missing, an estimate reached after lightning sifting of the cases of 8,000 Italians, reported in an avalanche of some 20,000 calls from relatives and friends of those on holiday in the general area. Checking to see if they were safe included sending out 15,000 SMS messages and sweeping through the units immense databank.

An example was this writer. He was reported missing by Andrea, the son of a lifelong friend, who weeks later disclosed that the unit had phoned him every day, asking for news and putting questions until it had cleared up the case.

You wont believe me, but it was all so easy, so incredibly easy! exclaimed the head of the unit, Elisabetta Belloni, an elegant Roman woman with impeccable English.

How on earth could it have been easy? Her answer boiled down to pre-emptive planning. Firstly, the unit sits on a mountain of information about Italians built up since its creation in 1990. It has been culled, for instance, not only from electoral rolls but from travel agencies and mobile-phone companies that are persuaded, in case of an emergency anywhere, to release the names and details of their clients in the threatened area so that the unit can then contact them directly. Italian firms and media outlets furnish daily updated lists of staff abroad. Then there are tip-offs from Italys secret services, picked up in a sealed-off section of the unit.

Shortly a new system will start working. I copied it from the Americans, Belloni acknowledged. Called Dove Sei Nel Mondo? it will allow all Italians going abroad to register with the unit before they leave.

Secondly, explained Belloni, it now has meticulous pre-established crisis plans for some 220 territories, 65 of which had been assessed as high-risk places, mainly in Africa, Asia, parts of South America and the Balkans. The plans have been drawn up by so-called joint survey teams, often including the armed forces and police, sent out to each country in turn for on-the-spot investigation into prevailing conditions, physical layout and possible escape routes. The results are ledgers of information as thick as phonebooks, and computer hard-disks packed with details. The thoroughness of it all is staggering.

Belloni tapped a wall-screen with a pen. A three-dimensional relief picture of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, the scene of crisis last November, popped up in front of us. It showed the Italian embassy, routes to the citys bridges and assembly points. We can focus in on anything. Another tap and there was a filthy side-street behind the embassy. We prepared it all long before November of course. A further tap and we were in Eritrea looking at a dotted line tracing a jungle-track to be followed to a secure location. At every tap, the names and contacts of key officials on the spot began flashing.

We toured the unit. We passed the graphics room where they have produced vivid cut-outs of world trouble-spots and kilos of minutely-detailed maps of southern Iraq where Italian forces are stationed. A room in semi-darkness was crammed to the ceiling with metallic slabs of gadgetry humming and flickering away. Ive no idea what all thats about! She pointed to a door. Thats my bedroom and bathroom. We passed into an ample dining area with adjoining kitchen. We can live here indefinitely if needs be.

But did other countries, Britain for instance, have similar units? Belloni allowed herself a mischievous little smile. They do. But lets say we are very advanced technologically. Thats why we are always short of money.

The crisis unit is an eye-opener for the many Italians, and foreigners as well, who see Italy as the country where nothing works.