Some 50 kilometers southeast of Guatemala City in the department of Escuintla, Guatemala, the Fuego Volcano erupts. The explosion sends ash clouds into the air while streams of lava and gas flow down the volcano’s slopes.
Authorities issue a red alert, the highest level of alarm, activating local, departmental, national, and military Emergency Operations Centers (EOC). Thus began the 2018 Humanitarian Allied Forces (FAHUM, in Spanish) exercise, which took place in Guatemala, April 16th–27th.
“The objective was to imagine that the Fuego Volcano was going to erupt and affect several communities in the department of Escuintla,” Guatemalan Army Colonel Juan Carlos De Paz, spokesman for the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense, told Diálogo. “We were able to measure our response capacity and the protocols activated, and verify that we have good response capabilities.”
The U.S. Southern Command- (SOUTHCOM) sponsored exercise consisted of simulated scenarios based on a mock eruption of the Fuego Volcano. More than 25,000 people participated in FAHUM 2018, including residents of the communities of La Trinidad and La Reina, adjacent to the volcano.
Approximately 25 troops from U.S. Army South and SOUTHCOM's Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo), located in Honduras, mobilized to support their Guatemalan Army counterparts and members of the different institutions that comprise the Guatemalan National Coordination System for Disaster Reduction (CONRED, in Spanish). The Volunteer Firefighters of Guatemala, the Red Cross, and international observers from Canada, Peru, Colombia, and Central America also participated in FAHUM 2018.
“International assistance was requested, because according to the exercise the country had collapsed,” Sergio Cabañas, executive secretary of CONRED, told Diálogo. “We also activated the Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center [under CONRED], which is where the humanitarian teams are.”
The annual exercise, which began in the 2000s, simulates various scenarios to reinforce natural disaster response capacities of national, civil, and military institutions of Central American and Caribbean countries. Moreover, the exercise allows for the various agencies in the region that must work together in the event of a catastrophe to standardize and share humanitarian response techniques.
“What we wanted to test was the communities’ response capacity,” explained Cabañas. “They evacuated, applied their procedures, reached the secure area [...]. We were in charge of the entire search, localization, and rescue operation, [and] we tested the incident command system, from which military members of CONRED completely controlled the exercise.”
Over 15 days, nine humanitarian assistance scenarios were carried out onsite, in the area surrounding the volcano and in Guatemala City. Once authorities activated the EOC, the communities of La Trinidad and La Reina evacuated. While residents cleared the area, the Humanitarian and Rescue Unit of the Guatemalan Army began simulated search and rescue operations—although 10 missing person cases were real, said Cabañas.
Two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from JTF-Bravo provided military air reinforcement and helped with the delivery of supplies to people affected by the volcano’s eruption. On the civilian side, a Boeing 757 from DHL, a global courier services company, arrived from Peru with additional supplies for the victims.
“We assisted with the planning of this exercise and provided rotary wing support during the exercise for delivery of humanitarian aid to isolated communities,” María Pinel Espinoza, public relations officer from JTF-Bravo, told Diálogo. “[We] established a command and control node to provide disaster-related information to the country team, while also tracking humanitarian relief operations.”
Another simulation consisted of managing dangerous material. As part of the exercise, a truck containing radioactive cells abandoned close to the volcano had to be extracted. CONRED's National Response Group for Incidents with Hazardous Material was mobilized to recover the radioactive material and safely deliver it to the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines.
“SOUTHCOM brought the cells, and we found them using detection devices and protective suits—all while following safety measures,” said Cabañas. “It was the first time that the hazardous material team participated, and this simulation was a success.”
According to Col. De Paz, the exercise was beneficial and allowed participating institutions to analyze their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). It also reinforced the readiness of the communities involved and their familiarity with evacuation procedures, all of utmost importance, as the Fuego Volcano—one of the most active in the region—last erupted at the end of January 2018.
“We see [the exercise] as a SWOT analysis, taking into account that Guatemala is a country vulnerable to natural disasters,” concluded Col. De Paz. “We realized our capacity to communicate with one another, [and] it has all been positive.” The FAHUM simulation exercise, which took place in Guatemala for two years in a row, will be held in the Dominican Republic in 2019.