U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), through the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Panama, donated three modern communication platforms to that country’s National Civil Protection System (SINAPROC, per its Spanish acronym) for use in emergency situations. The donation of Mobile Emergency Response Centers (MERCs), valued at more than $890,000, is part of SOUTHCOM’s Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP) for boosting the capacities of partner nations in Latin America and the Caribbean for disaster preparedness and mitigation.
“The government [of Panama] is most grateful and satisfied with the donation from Southern Command,” José Donderis, the director general of SINAPROC, told Diálogo. “With the MERCs, this nation will reinforce its effective response capabilities against the impact of a hurricane, an earthquake, floods, landslides, and other disasters, threats that impact Panamanian society.” MERC is a communication system designed and developed to respond quickly to disasters, to humanitarian aid operations, and for use in peacekeeping missions.
The mobile centers can be activated in under 30 minutes, are easy to transport, and can operate autonomously for eight to 10 days. They have the capacity to connect multiple communication systems via satellite, radio, or internet in extreme conditions, especially in places where communications infrastructure may not exist or have broken down. SOUTHCOM has donated the same type of equipment to Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay through its SOUTHCOM-HAP program.
Each of the three portable centers will ensure continuity in communication connectivity between SINAPROC, the Emergency Operations Center, security forces such as Panama’s Air and Naval Service, National Police, National Border Service, Institutional Defense Service, Joint Security Task Force, Ministry of Health, and other governmental agencies, for real-time decision making.
“This complementary assistance from Southern Command will increase efficiency in the duties assigned to public emergency response entities in their areas of expertise,” Néstor Luque, the head of the Seismology Network at the Geosciences Institute at the University of Panama, told Diálogo. “The faster an intervention is made during or immediately after a disaster, the less impact there will be. More lives will be saved and the affected population will be able to be helped in the short term,” he said.
In all, 35 SINAPROC technicians were trained by U.S. personnel on how to operate and maintain the MERCs from June 11th to 16th. Members of Panamanian air units and security forces attended the training.
Panama is considered an at-risk country for earthquakes, with flooding in the capital city and in the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Colón, and Darién. Throughout its history, prolonged periods of torrential rain have caused floods and landslides with serious economic losses, deaths, and injuries, according to the World Health Organization's website.
While natural disasters are infrequent in Panama, the Global Risks Report 2016 issued by the United Nations, ranks Panama 65th out of 173 globally, among nations at risk of suffering from natural disasters. In September 1882, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake shook Panama. The quake caused a tsunami with waves over three meters high that devastated the San Blas archipelago and the coasts of that rural district, leaving tens dead or injured. “Such an event would pose a devastating threat to the population if it occurred in those same areas today. We aren’t free from another threat like that,” Luque remarked.
“The issue of disaster risk reduction is of vital importance to the state. The good news is that these units have been used in three [tests],” Donderis underscored. “In 20 minutes we set up the operation in the capital city. Without the MERCs, it would have taken us two or three hours longer to coordinate the same response with other Panamanian equipment. Also, the good thing about this equipment is that it will lower the operating cost of communication by 50 percent,” he added.
For more than 20 years, the United States has supported Panama’s efforts to prevent and mitigate potential disasters by providing infrastructure, equipment, and training. Panama has been the regional emergency center since April 2007, given that SOUTHCOM donated a WebOEC server, software that allows Central American civil defense organizations access to information via the internet in order to respond to emergencies. The project received an investment of $500,000.
“Thanks to the support and cooperation of the United States and the international community, we have improved our risk strategies and our capacities, as well as our disaster preparedness and response. Now we are a source of humanitarian assistance. Panama is no longer a country that always receives humanitarian aid. In the last 14 months, we have gone abroad with our emergency-response equipment five times to aid sister nations such as Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica,” Donderis said.
“We hope that Panama continues building up resilience to disaster risks and moves forward with its commitments to the Sendai Framework,” Luque said. The Sendai Framework is an agreement signed by 187 UN member states to reduce the vulnerabilities and mitigate the impact of natural disasters during the next 15 years. The MERCs will be deployed in January 2019 to aid the efforts of Panamanian security forces during World Youth Day, an event sponsored by the Catholic Church which is expected to draw more than 1.3 million young people from every continent.