Feb. 7, 2002 – Faced with an all-too-plausible major marine casualty scenario, local and international public safety professionals from the U.S. and British Virgin Islands gathered on St. Thomas with regional U.S. Coast Guard personnel Wednesday for the first in a series of disaster preparedness exercises.
Dubbed SAREX 2002, the Coast Guard-sponsored "tabletop exercise" was held in the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency's operations center. More than 50 participants had the unique experience of meeting face to face while establishing an incident command post and working through the details of an effective international disaster response.
The exercise scenario was a simulated collision between a BVI passenger ferry vessel and an inter-island container vessel in the waters between St. John and Tortola. As a result of the collision, the passenger ferry vessel capsizes and numerous passengers are in the water. The scenario calls for a multi-agency response to provide search and rescue (SAR) resources, emergency medical services, survivor processing and support, vessel salvage, environmental protection and public information services.
Although the Coast Guard is the lead federal agency in the SAR, and the initial incident commander, jurisdictional responsibility for the other mission requirements involves various local and international agencies.
"This exercise sponsored by the Coast Guard is our opportunity in the Virgin Islands to practice what we will do in a real-life situation," VITEMA's state director, Harold M. Baker, said. "The more we train, the better our performance would be. This exercise further solidifies the mutual assistance agreements we have with the BVI."
"We will leave today with a list of issues that require further work both internally and jointly with the USVI," BVI Deputy Gov. Elton Georges said. "Today we're preparing for the worst in a search-and-rescue situation which could happen with the volume of traffic between the two countries. We are working on a memorandum of understanding with the USVI that we hope to finalize over the next several weeks that will enable us to mutually assist each other in various ways to mitigate disasters and respond to them."
Lt. Cmdr. Dirk Greene, executive officer of the Coast Guard's San Juan Marine Safety Office, was the officer in charge of SAREX 2002. "We're here today to prepare for the eventualities," he told the exercise participants. "We try to be as totally prepared for those as possible, respond as quick as possible, save as many lives as possible and protect our environment."
He continued, "Developing a plan is not the actual holding of the plan after it's all said and done. It's the journey getting there. It's the people you meet, the agreements that are made, resources identified, capabilities known. It's the journey that makes a great plan. It's not actually the hard copy piece of paper in hand.
"There are plans already in place. It's a matter of modifying those to include today's issues and capabilities. Every organization in this room right now already has their own plan. It's a matter of meshing all those plans together to make a coordinated effort so nobody is doing the same thing when they could be doing something more beneficial somewhere else. That's what we're trying to do."
Greene noted that the Coast Guard always works the "worst case" into its exercises, so as to "cover all the possibilities," whether addressing response to a hurricane, a hazardous material threat, an oil spill or any other scenario.
Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Cruthis, representing the Coast Guard 7th District Operations, Plans and Exercises Branch in Miami, noted, "A lot of what we're doing here today would also apply to another type of incident."
As the tabletop exercise unfolded, Cruthis said, he saw "a lot more enthusiasm here compared to similar exercises I've been involved with in Florida. I think that there are already very good established relationships here. I was impressed with the level of participation, cooperation and enthusiasm that I've seen here today."
Greene said the Coast Guard hopes to conduct another part of the exercise later this year. "I see this as a continuing cooperative effort," he said. "If we do have a situation, we will all do much better tomorrow than we would have been capable of doing yesterday."


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