When a disaster strikes, many factors can come into play as different agencies and organizations try to respond. From emergency first responders, nongovernmental organizations to military and public forces, everyone wants to lend a helping hand.
However, those components may not always have the right capabilities, or simply may not have the right information to know what capabilities to employ, making training scenarios very important. They enhance interoperability and facilitate communication between multiple responders, in order to prepare participants for potential future contingency scenarios.
Joint Task Force Bravo’s (JTF-Bravo) service members and Panamanian forces joined for an emergency response and humanitarian assistance exercise in the Darién Province, Panama, December 3-10 to hone expeditionary and readiness capabilities during a combined, joint exercise called Mercury. Amid dense jungle and remote field conditions, more than 100 U.S. participants worked alongside their Panamanian hosts to respond to a simulated flooding disaster following a hurricane — a wholly believable scenario for the region.
The goal of the low-cost exercise was simple: allow participants to learn together as they practiced the exercise deployment and operation of U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Situational Assessment Team (S-SAT) — SOUTHCOM’s eyes and ears, as the first team on the ground to reach a country that was affected by a disaster. The S-SAT is a multi-capacity machine that can rapidly move to an affected area to determine the situation on-the-ground during a disaster or crisis.
“We have the capacity to arrive in an affected area rapidly, and we can gather information to assess damages by land or through satellite images to develop a course of action that can help mitigate what has happened,” said U.S. Army Captain Juan Ariel Torres, JTF-Bravo engineer and exercise participant. “We coordinate with other U.S. Army and partner nations’ engineers to bring the necessary capabilities to respond efficiently.”
The S-SAT’s ranks include engineers, logisticians, communications specialists, intelligence analysts, medical personnel, and other components who all analyze and assess the situation in an affected area to advise senior leadership and decision makers on the correct response to a crisis. They say what is needed and what is not by working with the host nation, determining what capabilities are readily available.
For Exercise Mercury, the S-SAT worked alongside various Panamanian agencies, just as they would in a real-world event. One of these agencies, SINAPROC, is the Panamanian equivalent to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The exercise has been very successful,” said Ariel Martínez, provincial director of SINAPROC in Darién. “The most important thing we have seen is that a real delivery of aid has been accomplished and seeing how quickly they have been able to get to distant communities that are difficult for us to reach because of lack of equipment to mobilize to these remote areas. We have worked with [other agencies such as] SENAFRONT [Panamanian National Border Service], SENAN [Panamanian Air and Naval Service] and JTF-Bravo to see how resources are channeled to bring the right response to the people in need. If we work together it’s easier to be able to respond.”
The training scenario involved a flood in Darién, affecting several adjacent communities where personnel and necessary supplies can only be carried rapidly by air, based on historical data of what a disaster might look like in the region.
The remote communities included Alto Limón, El Real Jacque, La Olla, La Palma, La Unión, Metetí, Nazareth, Punusa, Tres Bocas, and Nicanor, where the S-SAT team deployed to assess and enhance Panamanian capabilities. At the same time, the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment (1-228th) transported humanitarian assistance cargo in conjunction with the exercise scenario being executed. This exercise built on work the 1-228th had done with SENAFRONT earlier in 2019.
The 1-228th played an integral and crucial role in the success of the exercise by coordinating flight movements throughout the mission, working with SENAN and facilitating transportation of cargo to SENAFRONT outposts, as they would be called upon to do in a real world event where Panama would request assistance from SOUTHCOM.
“There has been a lot of integration between us, SENAN, and SENAFRONT,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Elliott, 1-228th commander. “We have a number of folks that are key integrators in our operations cell that work with our forces on a daily basis to ensure the right cargo gets on the right flight to the right location. It´s keeping us ready to respond to any humanitarian assistance or real-world disaster relief event.”
Panama is a highly valued regional security partner to the United States and the only country in the Americas with a humanitarian assistance hub due to its proximity to disaster prone areas, making it a perfect location for the execution of Mercury.