Coast Guard, agency partners hold mass rescue operation workshop and exercise in Kotzebue

Coast Guard, agency partners hold mass rescue operation workshop in Kotzebue

The city of Kotzebue is seen from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter forward deployed to Kotzebue from Air Station Kodiak, July 17, 2013. The Coast Guard and its federal, state, local and tribal partners held a workshop and exercise in Kotzebue July 10 to test the agencies’ ability to respond to a mass rescue operation on Alaska’s northwest coast. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert.

By Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert

Vast distances, limited response resources, severe weather and frigid water combine to make search and rescue along the Northwest coast of Alaska extremely challenging. With that thought in mind, the Coast Guard and 12 federal, state, local and tribal partners held a mass rescue operation workshop to discuss how they can best work together to respond to a mass rescue need in the region.

The MRO workshop took place at the Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly room in Kotzebue July 10 and provided an overview of a mass rescue operation, giving participants the chance to evaluate the borough’s search and rescue capabilities.

The goal of the workshop and exercise was to measure the ability to provide a joint response in the event of a mass rescue operation and determine areas for improvement.

“The facilitated discussion identified operational and logistical requirements and limitations for managing landing sites, reception centers, passenger accountability and for providing emergency medical services,” said Kevin Kearney, an emergency management specialist at Coast Guard 17th District in Juneau.

Due to the increase in vessel traffic throughout the Arctic, the potential exists for a mass rescue event to occur within Alaska’s Northwest region. Mass rescue operations, such as the responses to Hurricane Katrina and the 2007 sinking of the ferry Queen of the North in Wright Sound, B.C., are defined as any rescue operations that require immediate assistance to a large number of people in distress that exceed the normal abilities of search and rescue authorities.

“The communities of the Northwest Arctic Borough may find themselves responsible to provide rescue services, shelter and medical aid to hundreds of displaced and injured people in the event of a major marine casualty,” said Kearney. “A workshop like this prepares us for that eventuality.”

The workshop was followed by a mass casualty field exercise simulating a cruise ship fire and the evacuation of 300 passengers. The mass casualty exercise employed 20 local volunteers simulating victims aboard two life boats landing at Kotzebue’s #2 boat launch ramp. Local police and fire department personnel as well as emergency responders from the Maniilaq Health Center and the Kotzebue Airport were tasked with assisting the passengers and safely delivering them to medical services.

“One of the goals of the exercise was to test emergency responders’ ability to quickly triage and transport a large number of injured individuals,” said Kearney. “The lessons learned from the exercise will provide us with information we can use in the future to provide fast, efficient service to those in need.”

The workshop and exercise ended with a discussion about what was learned during the event. By the end of the discussion, incident command positions were assigned and potential command and shelter locations were determined along with other objectives.

“The workshop was very well received,” said Kearney. “Local responders have a much greater understanding of the unified command structure, the Coast Guard and the Kotzebue/Northwest Arctic Borough’s search and rescue capabilities and limitations. We’re in a much better position to respond to an emergency along the north coast with what we learned during the workshop.”

Among the participants in the MRO workshop were personnel from the Coast Guard 17th District, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, the Alaska Department of Transportation, the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the Alaska State Troopers, the Interior Regional EMS Council, Kotzebue City Agencies, the North West Arctic Borough, Maniilaq Health Center, Red Dog Operations, the Kotzebue Airport, Alaska Airlines, and Public Health Nursing.

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