By Jay Field
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
A team of nine American first responders traveled to Skopje for a flood response exercise Sept. 17-21. Named Comprehensive Response Vodno 2018, the exercise is part of the U.S. Civil-Military Emergency Preparedness Program, under the Center for Civil-Military Relations.
The team, made up of experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Vermont National Guard, and Vermont Emergency Management spent the week working with Macedonian first responders to improve national and international cooperation in Macedonia in the area of emergency planning and preparedness. The week's events included presentations, lessons learned discussions and a three-day tabletop exercise to challenge the more than 125 participants.
In opening remarks, Toni Petreski, exercise co-director from Macedonia's Defense Ministry, said the objective of the exercise is to check the capabilities of the main headquarters for crisis management in the area of coordination and communication among the institutions of the Republic of Macedonia when responding to disasters.
"At the end, based on evaluations, we will propose measures and activities for overcoming certain shortcomings and gaps," Petreski said. "The purpose of these activities is to build and maintain the basic essential capabilities for dealing successfully with emergencies and disasters."
The Vermont National Guard has a 25-year partnership with the Republic of Macedonia helping the country build military capability and assisting the Balkan nation as it pursues NATO membership. The alignment is through the State Partnership Program, which now counts 75 state partnerships.
The Vermont adjutant general, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, was on hand for the exercise and said it is an exciting time to be in Macedonia.
"We help out the citizens of Vermont in times of disasters and it's exactly what the Republic of Macedonia Army does here as well," Cray said. "We bring disaster planners and exercise managers here to help increase their capacity. It's one of those things that the National Guard is good at and we should offer that assistance to our partners."
Urim Vejseli, exercise co-director from Macedonia's Crisis Management Center, said Macedonia is implementing the Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) as a web-based tool for spatial display and handling of incidents in real time, which will be tested during the tabletop exercise.
"In the 21st century, we are witnessing an increased level of risk to the security of citizens from natural and man-made disasters," Vejseli said. "This increased level of risk requires application of modern measures for prevention, early warning and crisis management by NATO-aspirant countries."
In 1963, a 6.9 magnitude (Richter scale) earthquake struck Skopje, destroying nearly 80 percent of the city and killing more than 1,000 people. The United States joined other nations in sending aid, including troops and an Army evacuation hospital. U.S. Army Capt. Gene Enriquez from the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia's Office of Defense Cooperation remarked that the event of 55 years ago saw the world come together to help Macedonia recover from the devastation. Skopje is a very different place today, he added, and more complex.
"Mother Nature does not wait for us to organize ourselves before causing destruction in our homes," Enriquez said. "The only solution is to be best prepared, with plans in place for what could be the worst day in Macedonia, and to work together, regardless of affiliation, to save lives and prevent suffering. This is our job."
The exercise scenario involved torrential rains causing flash floods in the Vodno region of Macedonia leading the government to activate its Crisis Management Center. Personnel from more than 30 Macedonian government agencies and organizations played. The scenario was developed in a year-long series of exercise planning workshops based on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP).
"All of the Macedonian individuals we worked with are very skilled professionals, and this exercise provided them with the opportunity to continue to collaborate with their colleagues from other organizations," said Diane Acurio, USACE project leader. "I believe this event was very successful in that it brought together a number of people who will work closely in a crisis in future response efforts."
Adding a sense of realism to exercise play was the introduction of a simulated social media network, dubbed "SimPost," developed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory, sponsored by DARPA. Journalism students from Skopje's University of Saints Cyril and Methodius augmented SimPost messaging to simulate information exchange between media, impacted citizens and emergency responders.
The Department of Defense's Civil-Military Emergency Preparedness Program supports NATO Partner Nations in building capacity for national-level and all-hazard disaster preparedness. CMEP Program events, executed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, focus on facilitating inter-ministerial and civil-military cooperation, enhancing Armed Forces capabilities to provide defense support to civil authority and regional/multilateral cooperation to support response to disasters.