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Preparing Partners for Emergencies

In 1996, the Civil Military Emergency Preparedness (CMEP) Program began working with former Warsaw Pact nations in Europe and Central Asia to build regional and international relationships, and develop a shared capability for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. CMEP efforts initially supported the Warsaw Initiative Funds (WIF), a program to assist former Warsaw Pact nations and newly independent former Soviet republics make the successful transition to democratic institutions following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

That mission is now global in scope, with projects and initiatives designed to help countries establish a framework for security and address preparedness for the management of the consequences from all types of hazards. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) executes the program with policy guidance provided by Headquarters, Department of Army G-3/5/7 and oversight from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy).

In Eastern Europe, where the program began, many countries that hosted CMEP events over the years have gone on to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), leaving 14 countries participating in CMEP-WIF, according to Diane Acurio, program manager for the CMEP WIF countries.

CMEP in Europe and Central Asia continues to work to help countries develop skills and capabilities to achieve security objectives, as well as meet consequence management expectations. The key is to get the countries to not only improve their national capabilities, but also develop relationships and establish formal cooperation agreements and procedures with other countries in their region.

“We also help them to achieve civil and military cooperation within their countries and build emergency management skills as we help them prepare for all types of hazards,” Acurio said. “We bring in subject-matter experts from the Army Corps of Engineers as well as other federal, non-governmental, and international organizations, from a variety of disciplines, depending upon the selected scenario developed by the country.”

For example, Serbia suffers from torrential downpours, so it focuses on flood scenarios, she said. Azerbaijan might focus on oil spills because of its offshore drilling in the Caspian Sea.

Within the last year, Acurio said interagency or inter-ministerial “tabletop” exercises and workshops proved extremely effective.

In these exercises, CMEP experts assist a country in developing a scenario focused on one or more disaster types and that is designed to examine the strength of existing capabilities as well as to identify areas that might require further examination or strengthening. On the first day of the exercise, all of the ministries within that country are briefed on how each individual ministry might respond to the particular scenario. The results, even of these initial briefings, are somewhat revealing, Acurio said.

“In many, many cases – almost all the cases – this is the first time any of the other agencies have heard how their fellow agencies respond to this type of emergency,” she said. “We’ve had good discussions based on these presentations, because a number of times people say, ‘No, no, no, that’s my job,’ or, ‘Where did you guys get your training, because we’re supposed to be doing search and rescue.’”

Throughout the process, Acurio said that most of the time the facilitators will let participants discuss solutions among themselves. At the same time, she said, they are trying to exercise their national response plan.

In subsequent days, each ministry sits at a separate table with a laptop computer, simulating their separate organizations and an emergency operations center as events unfold during the exercise.

Representatives from Azerbaijan ministries of emergency situations, defense, foreign affairs, national security, internal affairs, health, and ecology and natureal resources participated in a multi-hazard preparedness exercise in September 2010 sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Military Emergency Preparedness Program. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rahim Alizadeh

“We try to exercise as many ministries as possible to get everyone involved in the event,” Acurio said.

As a result, many countries either request another exercise, and/or hold internal exercises within their own countries even including regional partners.

These exercises aren’t without challenges, though. One common situation is that most of the emergency response capability within these countries is under the direction of the military or ministry of defense. For NATO aspirants, countries must have these capabilities under a separate organization. Other challenges may be presented by the cultural and political characteristics of each country.

The exercises have proved effective. In May, for example, Serbia conducted an exercise to react to possible flooding, and two days after the exercise, they had torrential flooding in southeast Serbia that resulted in fatalities.

One of the cornerstones to these exercises is the national response plan workshop, where representatives come to learn how to develop an integrated national response plan.

“We’ve actually had two countries go back and rewrite and reorganize their national response plan to match the U.S. national response framework,” Acurio said. “If you look at the country of Georgia, if you look at their response plan, their annexes, it looks very similar to ours.”

In addition to the direct support CMEP provides, Acurio noted the efforts of neighboring NATO countries that often serve as mentors. For example, new NATO members, such as Romania and Bulgaria, have served as mentors for Balkan countries during exercises.

“We cannot fund them, since they’re now NATO members, but they still participate in our events, and it works out very well since they are effective mentors, and the people all know them,” she said. “In the last few years, Turkey has been participating with us quite a bit, and that’s been really good.”

Within the next year, Acurio said the workshops will continue in the 14 countries and the focus will likely be on more hazardous material-types of scenarios, as well as infrastructure protection.

But as the process continues where its roots were established, other parts of the globe are beginning to benefit from the effectiveness of the program.

Andrew Bruzewicz, international emergency management program manager for USACE, noted the expansion to areas around the world was likely not even considered in the project at its inception. Now, projects in places such as Guyana, Kenya, and Swaziland mark the calendar for CMEP, and he said they’re also looking to have activities in Nepal and Mongolia in 2010.

With the variety of countries, climates, and cultures that exist globally, it requires a lot of adaptation on the part of CMEP, but all of its efforts are rooted in some basic processes.

“We certainly try to do things in as common a way as possible, but we’re dealing with different cultures in the way in which they respond to all hazards disasters [natural and man-made],” Bruzewicz said. “But within that context, there’s a common process, that is, we’re working with the host nation, and people from the local embassy; we’re working with people from the Geographic Combatant Command and the Army Service Component Command, and the first step is to go and determine what capabilities exist at the present point in time and then how our program – which is really focused on strategic-level coordination and management of all hazards disasters – can help meet needs that are not presently being met.”

The focus, he said, is the disaster management and consequence management piece, then working with the partner nation and country teams identifying needs and establishing a set of priorities.

“You do an assessment; you develop a road map, you have priorities that are determined by the country, the embassy team, U.S. strategic interests … and then you start doing activities that are designed to help fill those gaps that were identified following the assessment,” he said.

The goal is to help partner nations develop and maintain a good, national response framework including national response mechanisms and procedures through which they can respond in the case of an emergency.

But it goes one step further, as disasters don’t respect national boundaries and may be so large that they cannot be met by the national response, no matter how good it is.

For example, neighboring countries must consider how they are willing to assist and how to improve their communication if they are to effectively respond to disasters that might occur along a border or that are so large that the affected nation requires help.

“We really want to be sure that countries have considered these things before the disaster takes place,” Bruzewicz said. “So you know what it is that needs to be done and can actually be performed in an effective and timely manner.”

A working national response plan, he added, is the critical starting point.

Other issues that countries must deal with are somewhat new, but they are the product of the information age, and it’s something on which they need to focus. Along with multi-ministerial emergency operations, coordination, and communication, Bruzewicz said, a country must know how to address requests for and offers of assistance and the almost continuous flow of information.

For example, he noted the need to work with a free press on a 24-hour news cycle is of utmost importance.

“We’ve seen that countries have very different attitudes on how important it is to be free and open in communicating with the press and we’re really seeing that in particular in the case of Ukraine,” he said. “They are adamant that there be a free and open flow of information, because the last thing that they want to see is a repeat of a Chernobyl-type of event where you have people die or people who are getting sick because they had no idea that there was a very dangerous material that was filtering out of the sky, that was getting into the milk, and into other parts of the food chain.”

At the cornerstone of all of this is communication. Communication is important among different agencies and different ministries in different parts of the world, and even between neighboring countries that might not see eye to eye, but must rely on one another in the event of an emergency.

Using CMEP’s catalog of seminars and workshops, and its customized approach to tabletop exercises that are designed to build the capability to prepare for and manage the consequences of all hazards disasters, partner nations and regions are better prepared to manage increasingly large events without requiring international assistance. Drawing upon the expertise of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and that of other groups, CMEP is helping countries enhance their planning processes and improve their preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation procedures. With assistance from CMEP as one of the tools being used by the U.S. to increase the stability of partner governments, these nations have greater capability to anticipate emergency events and are better prepared to reduce loss of life and damage to property, meeting the expectations of their citizens when disasters strike.

This article first appeared in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong, 2010-2011 Edition.