Colombia’s disaster response system led to an increase in the number of relief missions in local communities, and also provided assistance during recent disasters in Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Costa Rica. The system is built around several public and private entities, and community and military organizations brought together under the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGDR, in Spanish). UNGDR was established in 2008 by the National Center for Personnel Rescue (CNRP, in Spanish) that the Colombian Air Force (FAC in Spanish) operates to aid the civilian population. The unit is based at the Military Air Transport Command in Bogotá.
“The level of disaster response coordination that Colombia attained saves more lives each time,” FAC Major Ricardo Ovalle, coordinator of Joint Operations for CNRP and UNGDR, told Diálogo. “FAC plays a decisive role in this process. It’s round-the-clock work that never lets up.”
Emergency response fronts
CNRP operates on three fronts. The center transports personnel and cargo to put out massive wildfires and responds to landslides and floods. CNRP also conducts aerial surveillance over areas where civilian populations are at risk, such as volcanoes, snowy regions, and rivers.
“Avalanches and mudslides are more critical. Fires have a huge impact on flora and fauna, but you have some time before they impact people. Avalanches involve a lot of wounded people, without houses, without services,” Maj. Ovalle said. “They require more effective assistance.”
The second front consists of search-and-rescue operations for military and civilian personnel following aircraft crashes or river accidents. The center’s third front is unquestionably the area of highest demand: relocation and aeromedical evacuation. In 2004, the Directorate of Special Air Operations (today’s CNRP) established a broad set of procedures in an efficient protocol for disaster response and rescue. Since then, the unit transported more than 19,000 service members and civilians from all places and especially from hard-to-reach areas that only military aircraft can access.
Every minute counts
CNRP never rests. Its command is made up of just 22 officers and enlisted who coordinate its interfaces with a large army of specialists from every unit of FAC, who almost always race against the clock when responding to emergencies.
“In our mission to save lives, every minute matters,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel John Jairo Baez, head of CNRP, told Diálogo. “In disaster response, every minute counts to save the lives of those who are in harm’s way. In search and rescue, a single minute can make the difference to find those injured or lost. And in aeromedical evacuation, time matters even more.”
Every decision is based on a stream of information to carry out the procedure as quickly as possible. Strict adherence to established response protocols shape their use over time.
“Our mission during the April 2017 avalanche in Moca showed how our disaster response system evolved and how FAC’s response capabilities increased thanks to the incorporation of [response] developed resources and protocols,” Lt. Col. Baez said. “We’re at the forefront of disaster response in the region.”
FAC pilots execute CNRP’s operations. Trained to operate under the most stressful circumstances, pilots review every request for assistance to choose what resources to use to respond to each case. Pilots, who understand the implications of their choices, make quick but thoughtful decisions.
“To go where someone needs help is one of FAC’s commitments. We did entire military operations to bring women in labor out from far-flung places and transfer sick children and adults,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel José Luis Avendaño Hurtado, chief of CNRP’s Transportation and Aeromedical Evacuation Division, told Diálogo. “There are several factors to assess to ensure operational effectiveness: weather conditions, nearby treatment locations, and the amount of time needed for treatment based on indications from the medical evaluation system.”
The amount of combat evacuations for wounded soldiers across Colombia during the armed conflict required capacity building to overcome obstacles. Up to 2015, members of the public security forces represented the largest number of transfers. But, since 2016, civilian rescues lead the statistics.
“We follow a doctrine set forth by the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization—the governing bodies on search and rescue procedures—to determine the locations and conditions in which a person can survive,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel Fernando Mendoza, chief of CNRP’s Search-and-Rescue Division, told Diálogo. “We work with technology, but, when technology fails us, the power goes out, and there are no indicators, we are left with the experience of our pilots, trained in war operations and used to applying their knowledge of basic geometry and trigonometry to perform triangulations and find the target.”
Effective equipment and human commitment
To carry out these missions, CNRP has a fleet of three medically outfitted Beechcraft King Air 350 aircraft, and three UH-60 helicopters, dubbed the “Angels Squadron,” which are equipped with a hoist system to perform personnel rescues in hard-to-reach areas. The aircraft are also equipped to carry the Bambi Bucket system, a must to put out fires. Three Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft supplement the fleet. When needed, a C-130 Hercules can be fitted with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS II).
“The experience gained from the conflict allowed us to know what’s needed to survive on land, in water, in poor visibility conditions, and at night—in extremely risky conditions,” added FAC Major Pablo Mora Díaz, deputy director of Human Resources and Technical Support for UNGDR. “We do whatever needs to be done. We follow protocols, and we’re creative. We work for the well-being of all. We’re soldiers who rescue people,” he concluded.