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Territory's Emergency Agencies Test Response, Communications Capabilities

What would really happen if the territory got hit by a tsunami or had to deal with an unknown illness brought in by passengers aboard one of the cruise ships? Local and federal first responder agencies tried Tuesday to figure out just that as the third phase of "Operation Tide Breaker" looked at how the territory would fare in the face of a major catastrophe.

V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Elton Lewis said Tuesday, as the exercise got under way at the Havensight dock on St. Thomas, that in past drills conducted on St. Croix, the main problem has been getting all the agencies to communicate effectively.

He also said the agencies had to look at how they would feed and take care of the local population for up to 72 hours after a disaster hits.

"One thing that has always been problematic is our communications," he said. "We have multiple units here and we have to look at how we talk to each other seamlessly and if we have the right equipment, so that’s one thing we’re keeping a very close eye on, so we can fix any problems that might arise.”

“If we can’t communicate, if we can’t talk, that’s going to be an issue for us," Lewis said.

Plus, if the airports and sea ports are closed, bringing in food for the population – especially up to 72 hours after a disaster – is a problem, he said.

"We always try to test our ability and determine the gaps in responding to any kind of catastrophic event in the territory, so by conducting exercises that will give me and other planners a better idea of where the weaknesses are, where the shortfalls are, and how we can work together on plans to bridge those gaps," Lewis added.

Tuesday’s drill simulated a 7.5 magnitude earthquake – which was followed by a tsunami – along with the threat of an unknown illness being brought in on one of the cruise ships. As passengers began crowding the dock, feigning illness, other role players tested the response capabilities of the first responder agencies at the dock.

The V.I. National Guard’s 23rd Civil Support Team took care of the cruise ship passengers, and Lewis said they, along with Fire Services’ Hazmat team, were responsible for investigating to determine the cause of the illness and taking the "appropriate action."

Other agencies participating in the exercise include the V.I. Port Authority, V.I. Health Department’s Emergency Medical Services, V.I. Tourism Department, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the American Red Cross, Puerto Rico National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI. The Caribbean Response Team from Barbados was also involved, according to Lewis.

Intelligence gathering, sharing and dissemination, onsite incident management, emergency triage and pre-hospital treatment, and medical evacuation capabilities were also put to the test, Lewis said.

The two-day operation and certification training is also a requirement for all first responder units within the territory, he added. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides technical and financial support for the exercises and worked with Homeland Security to develop the scenarios.

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