USNORTHCOM humanitarian assistance program builds disaster response partnerships

By Tech. Sgt. Kurt Arkenberg and Emira Wininger | NORAD AND USNORTHCOM Public Affairs and USNORTHCOM Interagency Coordination | August 12, 2010

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - As complicated as it is to support federal agencies during a disaster within the United States, supporting an international neighbor is even more complex, and since disasters wait for no one, success can depend on unity of effort within a team of domestic and international partners.

Since 2007, U.S. Northern Command's Interagency Coordination directorate and the Environmental Protection Agency have been working together with Mexico's Civil Protection as well as the U.S./Mexico Border Governors Emergency Management and Civil Protection group to strengthen coordination between the two nations for the benefit of nearly 12 million people along both sides of the border.

"This groundbreaking bi-national program involves emergency preparation, local planning committees and improved coordination between government, industry and civil organizations," said Dan Hansen, USNORTHCOM's Humanitarian Assistance Program manager. "Equally important is education and training for first responders and sharing bilateral information about potential risks.

"The more effectively the United States and Mexico are able to work together and plan before a disaster strikes, the more rapidly they will be able to respond if such an event should occur."

To date, USNORTHCOM has received approximately $4.5 million from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency to execute humanitarian projects as part of the overall Department of Defense Program.

"Deliberate engagement with Mexico and the Bahamas is essential to promote our common interests and address our mutual regional security concerns," said Bear McConnell, USNORTHCOM IC director. "With Mexico in particular, our activities serve to strengthen and support community resiliency, a priority of the Beyond Merida Initiatives, while enhancing cross-border disaster response interoperability."

For example, more than 100 first responders are trained and certified to the highest international standards and equipped with HAZMAT suits in order to effectively contain and stabilize hazardous substances during a disaster. Five of Mexico's border cities are now capable of responding to an incident with a six-person Level A HAZMAT response team. Other training programs include basic chemistry, toxicology, contaminant detection, decontamination, air monitoring and counter-terrorism. Once the program is complete, more than 500 first responders will be trained and equipped.

The U.S. embassies in Mexico and the Bahamas link USNORTHCOM activities with country priorities, authorize each project in the host nation and work with USNORTHCOM and its partners to ensure success.

According to Hansen, an example of the program's success is delivering a water pump to Matamoros, Mexico, within four hours to help about 10,000 people displaced due to Hurricane Alex.

"We were able to send funds to the U.S. Consulate, and they were able to buy a high-power water pump on the Mexican economy," said Hansen. "That's true, timely help to people in need."

Previous disaster response plans have been tweaked to meet specifics of neighbor nations needs during similar disasters.

"Using U.S. response plans for natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes etcetera, we are able to have our starting point for neighbor nations' response plans much further along," said Hansen. "They don't have to create a plan from scratch. They can simply take what applies to them."

According to Hansen, the IC is revamping its direction to align future funding with the command's four pillars of focus.

"One of our focuses as we grow our humanitarian assistance program is to help create vocational tech centers, diesel conversion centers and increase training in civil protection in Mexico," said Hansen. "The key is to provide Mexico's citizens with job alternatives and thereby lessen the economic factors that might force a community to turn to illegal activities to feed its families."