May 31, 2002 – The start of the Atlantic hurricane season is a favorite time for emergency managers to plot disaster strategies. However, this year, a different group of responders are using the occasion to look at other scenarios taking place at sea.
A mock disaster exercise sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard this week provided a first-time opportunity for a disaster team from the British Virgin Islands to learn Incident Command, an emergency response system that's being used throughout the United States.
"It's a structure that works very well, bringing the BVI into the mix. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense," said Lt. Cmdr. Greg Curthis, who conducts exercises of this sort for the Coast Guard 7th District. He said the Coast Guard locally wanted to bring the BVI onto its disaster response team because of limited resources in the USVI.
The exercise, held at the St. Thomas headquarters of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Managment Agency, was first thought up last July and was preceded by tabletop exercises involving BVI personnel on Feb. 6.
The Thursday drill was a day-long, step-by-step look at the role of emergency workers joining forces in response to a boat collision in Sir Francis Drake Channel. In the practice scenario, a ferry, the M/V Lucky, is struck by a pleasure craft called Adversity. Despite the humorous choice of names, the exercise was dead serious.
Both vessels are on their way to St. Thomas from Tortola when the collision occurs. There is death and massive injury among the 210 passengers and crew aboard the two ships. A unified command team — the term used when multiple agencies get involved — assesses the situation and breaks up into tasked teams to handle different aspects of the crisis.
In the operations room, BVI marine supervisor Bingley Richardson watched as a Coast Guard computer technician manipulated rescue ships and aircraft around the accident site. "There's no question there's a need for it," said Richardson, a former V.I. senator, pointing out that in recent memory there have been three marine accidents involving large commercial vessels traveling within U.S. and British Virgin Islands waters:
– In December 2000, the passenger ferry Native Son ran aground at Cow and Calf.
– On March 9, 2001, the car barge Roanoke and the passenger ferry Caribe Tide collided head-on outside Cruz Bay, injuring some 20 persons.
– On April 7, the Voyager Eagle ferry ran aground on Johnson's Reef as it made a routine run from St. Thomas to Tortola; all aboard were transferred safely to another vessel; wave action washed the vessel off the reef the next day, leaving damaged coral behind.
In those incidents, Richardson said, "there was no loss of life. But what if there were? An operation like this would be needed."
A fourth incident, which he didn't mention, occurred last Feb. 1, when fire broke out in the engine room of the coastal freighter M/V Lorrine. The crew members abandoned ship 14 miles southeast of St. Thomas and were rescued hours later by a passing cruise ship. Later, as the freighter was being towed to Tortola, it sank off Norman Island.
On Thursday, in the Incident Command Room, decision makers were weighing what resources they could draw upon to meet the pseudo-disaster and how they could put their assets to good use.
In a real-life disaster, Sharleen Dabreo would be calling the shots for the BVI emergency forces as director of its Disaster Management Agency. She said she liked her first experience with Incident Command. "It's easier operationally. It brings in a lot of people who have technical expertise and lays out the disaster management plan in simple steps," she said.
One of her USVI counterparts, Alvis Christian, meanwhile was in the exercise outside of the decision-making loop. As St. John deputy director of the VITEMA, Christian led his island's emergency response during and after Hurricane Lenny in 1999. In this week's exercise, he was developing his skills as a safety officer, handling the details others might miss that could affect the overall operation.
"My job is to make sure the crew does not succumb to heat exhaustion, that they have water, lights — if the incident goes late into the night and also to keep track of the weather," he said.
The organizers even held a mock press conference, fielding questions from a group of make-believe reporters.
Curthis said the disaster drills are usually held every two years in different locations in the 7th District, but after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland last September, he wants to see them conducted yearly.
The BVI and the USVI already have international agreements in place for joint participation in search-and-rescue operations. But, given the many different types of disasters that may require a joint emergency response, other agreements may have to be sought, Curthis said.
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