DUSHANBE, Tajikistan – When disaster strikes, the international community is quick to respond with offers of aid in the form of food, medicine, equipment and manpower.
The utilization of this aid and how quickly it gets to the affected area can mean the difference between saving thousands of lives and arriving too late. Training response personnel on the techniques and procedures of employing aid during a disaster is crucial to the success of a relief operation.
This training has to be done well before it is needed and responders need to continuously hone their skills to stay sharp in the case of emergencies.
The Regional Cooperation 2011 Exercise held in Tajikistan, Sept. 15 - 25, was designed to prepare several nations in the area to respond to both a natural disaster and a man-made catastrophic event.
Thirty six members of the Massachusetts National Guard recently traveled for more than 30 hours, including 20 hours of flight time, through four airports and three continents to train the RC-11 participants.
“The biggest obstacle for the U.S. forces is just getting here.” said Maj. John R. Dickey, Assistant Operations Officer, Massachusetts National Guard. “There is a lot of traveling.”
Dickey said the main obstacle for the exercise was working with multiple countries and languages but with patience and the help of their interpreters they’re always successful in getting the message across.
These Guardsmen, many veterans of earlier RC exercises, were Soldiers with backgrounds in intelligence, operations, logistics, medicine and public affairs.
Paired up with additional personnel from CENTCOM in Florida and their counterparts from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the Massachusetts Soldiers were broken down into their functional cells for the exercise.
“Regional Cooperation 2011 is a disaster response exercise involving the Central Asian states and the Unites States that simulates a disaster has occurred and neighboring countries provide assistance to the affected country,” said Dickey.
The exercise itself was centered on a Regional Coordination Center comprised of the participating nations and how it dealt with two fictional events; a natural disaster and subsequent terrorist attack. The initial crisis was a 7.5 magnitude earthquake centered in the city of Isfara, Tajikistan which destroyed 70 percent of the city leaving thousands dead, wounded and displaced.
Planners designed the event to exceed the available assets the Tajik government had available to handle the crisis, thus requiring a request to neighboring nations for assistance.
The aid from other nations arrived on the third day after the earthquake and the RCC, a planning and coordinating cell, is quickly established to help achieve unity of effort during the ongoing relief and recovery operations. The RCC is not a command and control team, but provides the coordination, analysis and makes recommendations to the host nation. The host nation retains control of all operations within their borders.
“The purpose of the exercise is to promote coordination between the Tajiks and the surrounding countries to prepare of any natural disasters or catastrophic event that happens in the area,” said 1st Lt. Ross A. Krajewski, Assistant Logistics Officer, 51st Troop Command, Massachusetts National Guard. “The goal is to have them work together to overcome any obstacles they face.
“We use the computer simulated disaster as a process to get all the countries in the same room,” said Dickey. “We get them to work with each other and get to know each other so in the event that a real disaster happens they already have some processes in place to help them successfully respond to the crisis.”
The RCC maintains direct communications with the intelligence, operations, logistics and public affairs groups to best utilize the capabilities and experience of each cell.
The exercise started off slowly with the participants becoming accustomed to interacting with each other through the use of interpreters, as Dari and Russian are the principal languages spoken in Tajikistan.
As the exercise pace progressed, the Massachusetts Guardsmen transitioned from active to passive advisors. The host nation and their regional neighbors quickly assumed the lead asking for assistance only when needed.
This is when the exercise planners threw another disaster at the participants. The Asian Unification Brigade, a fictitious terrorist organization, seized control of a dam control room and opened the floodgates prior to destroying the controls. The subsequent flooding in the valley below the dam left thousands more injured, missing and homeless.
More importantly the event further tested the RCC’s ability to respond to the needs of the people of Tajikistan. Two disasters in the span of seven days created additional stress on every cell involved.
Logistics and operations Cells had to sort through numerous requests for aid convoys and divert supplies to areas in critical need. The Intelligence Cell tracked conditions as they developed including weather, AUB activity and conducted an ongoing threat assessment. The public affairs cell maintained the critical information flow to the public by issuing numerous press releases, responding to media queries, facilitating one-on-one interviews and hosting press conferences.
Once the participants adjusted to the new scenario the 10-day exercise came to a close. Those involved in RC-11 came away with a better understanding of working in a multi-national environment and the importance of collaborations in the face of large-scale disasters.
Each participant also got to meet their counterparts from the various nations and hopefully sowed the seeds of lasting relationships through the region.
The Massachusetts Guardsmen left Tajikistan on the long journey home successfully completing their part of RC-11, already looking forward to RC-12.