BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Twenty thousand citizens of Jalal Abad, Kyrgyzstan are killed when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake strikes the city. Thousands more are injured as the number of internally displaced swells to more than 45,000.
The Kyrgyz government’s resources are quickly strained as first responders and aid arrive in the city. The scope of the disaster is just too large for Kyrgyzstan to handle alone.
The Kyrgyz government sends out requests for assistance to their neighbors and the international community.
This is the scenario quickly outlined in the initial briefing at the start of a disaster relief exercise known as Regional Cooperation.
The Regional Cooperation 2012 Exercise held in Kyrgyzstan, June 15-29, is conducted to help prepare participating nations in the area to respond to both a natural disaster and a man-made catastrophic event.
“Regional Cooperation 2012 is a disaster response exercise that occurs in the Central and Southern Asian states and conducted by U.S. Central Command that simulates a disaster which has occurred and neighboring countries provide assistance to the affected country,” said Maj. John Dickey, assistant training officer, 51st Troop Command, Massachusetts National Guard.
Members of the Massachusetts National Guard, primarily from the 51st Troop Command, traveled to Kyrgyzstan to train with the RC-12 participants from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and host Kyrgyzstan.
Dickey said Regional Cooperation is built around a natural disaster occurring in the region with the countries in the region and the Unites States sending resources to aid relief operations.
“The Massachusetts National Guard represents the resources and the Soldiers that respond to the area of the disaster to assist,” said Dickey.
The Massachusetts National Guard has a long history of responding to emergencies within the commonwealth and this experience is invaluable when training with other first responders. This history has provided the Guard with a wealth of knowledgeable and experienced personnel capable of instructing others in domestic emergency response.
“My main goal was to educate my peers from other nations on the basic tasks of an analyst,” said Staff Sgt. Rafael Mestre, intelligence analyst, 51st Troop Command. “Learning about the other cultures of the nations represented at the exercise and building a professional relationship is also important.”
Training to respond to a disaster has to be done well before it is needed; an ill-prepared response force could only exasperate the crisis. Responders need to work through the issues they will face long before lives are at stake and keep their skills sharp in the case of an emergency.
Working with numerous countries in Central Asia posed additional challenges in addition to the often fast moving and intense exercise.
“The biggest obstacle was the language barrier,” said Mestre. “Although linguists were very helpful, a communications challenge still existed when an interpreter was unavailable.”
The Soldiers of the 51st brought experience in the fields of intelligence, operations, logistics, medicine and public affairs to the exercise. Many of these Soldiers had attended previous regional cooperation exercises.
“The main goal of the exercise is to build relationships amongst the countries in the region and the United States,” said Dickey. “There are a number of sub-goals related to preparation for natural disasters and refining procedures for how we set a multi-national command post but the main goal is to get these countries interacting, sharing information and building relationships. So if there ever is a real disaster they’d be better prepared.”
The exercise is predominately computer simulated with events introduced through situation reports fed to participants via briefings, emails or news reports to be handled by the individual functional cells. These cells are broken down into intelligence, operations, logistics, public affairs and the executive group.
The executive group is the head of the Regional Coordination Center, the organization tasked with responding to the afflicted areas during the crisis, and is tasked with directing the intelligence, operations, logistics and public affairs groups to best utilize the capabilities and experience of each cell.
Each cell was composed of representatives from the participating nations and all have an important part to play in the course of the exercise.
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, possible terrorist 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, and hosting press conferences.
In addition to working the within the functional cells the 51st Soldiers also partook in a cultural day that highlighted the sights, sounds and tastes of Kyrgyzstan. The Soldiers were bused to a recreation area in the mountains where they dined on Kyrgyz food, listened to traditional folk music and either hiked or rode horses through the mountains.
At the completion of the exercise each participant took away something different from their experience. For one regional cooperation first-timer the trip was professionally rewarding. “Teaching my regional cooperation counterparts some of the skills I’ve learned over the years as an analyst and watching them use those skills to succeed during the exercise was the most rewarding aspect for me,” said Mestre.