The beacon was just a blip in the vastness of the Chukchi Sea, but what it represented mobilized a thousand responders into action.
Over the course of two days at the end of August, a simulated a disaster at sea — the incapacitation of a cruise ship in the waters outside Kotzebue — tested the mettle of Alaska's Arctic emergency response network. Improving safety in the region, including search and rescue capacity, is one of the U.S. State Department's goals during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which extends through 2017.
"There was a demonstrated need in the Arctic as activities in the Arctic pick up, particularly with transit of the Northwest Passage. There need to be preparedness exercises and discussions to figure out where our gaps in capability are and where our strengths are," said Cmdr. Mark Wilcox, Arctic coordinator for U.S. Coast Guard District 17, which encompasses Alaska.
The preparedness exercise, dubbed Arctic Chinook, was sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Northern Command and included international, state, local and tribal partners including the Canadian Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Maniilaq Health Services, and village representatives.
It developed on the heels of last year's Arctic Zephyr tabletop drill along with the Northwest Passage tabletop exercise in Anchorage earlier this year that focused on the mass rescue of a luxury cruise liner in the Arctic.
"What spurred all of this is that as the seasonal ice continues to recede, there's a lot more ability to transit across the Northwest Passage. We're seeing more and more activity on the part of research vessels as well as cruise vessels," said Wilcox. "Over the last few years, that's been mainly restricted to these adventure class cruise ships in the 100-200 passenger range. This year, the Crystal Serenity, which is a much larger luxury cruise ship, made its first journey across the Northwest Passage. At some point shipping may become a bigger issue as the passage gets explored better."
More traffic means a greater chance of problems and the need to prepare for any incident that could happen in what are some of the most remote parts of the state.
"The challenge of the Arctic is not just the weather, but the lack of infrastructure," said Wilcox. "Relative to the Lower 48, there's a lot less staged resources near the Northwest Passage."
Initially, the exercise was supposed to take place in the Bering Strait outside of Nome, with the simulated cruise ship becoming disabled near Wales. Volunteers who played passengers with injuries would have been transported to Tin City before being flown to Kotzebue.
However, inclement weather pushed the training to the more protected waters of Kotzebue Sound. Tin City was replaced by a remote location at the end of the road.
The exercise tested everything from medical training to infrastructure to local capacity to technological dependability.
"Communication is the No. 1 thing that fails," said Heidi Hedberg, response manager for the Health Emergency Response Operations program under the public health division of the state health department.
For that reason, the Coast Guard's research and development center also tested special communications equipment that could be used for rural emergencies.
"[It included] software and communications packages that are deployable in this type of incident to provide a local cellular and communications network to fill in the gaps," said Wilcox.
As for Hedberg, she worked on the medical side of the response and helped coordinate the Alaska Respond staff, made up of medical professionals, like doctors and nurses, from around the state who volunteer as emergency first responders.
"They have day-to-day jobs working at hospitals and so, depending on the disaster, we [send out] different types of volunteers," Hedberg said. "Even though we might know the plan, when you put together 17 people who don't know each other, we have to train. Everyone was new to each other."
The first day of Arctic Chinook focused on the initial maritime response including locating and tracking the vehicle in distress (the beacon aboard a life raft), testing tow capabilities, and providing emergency medical care. The 212th Rescue Squadron — which includes pararescuemen (PJs), combat rescue officers, and survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists — practiced air-to-water rescues and gave the volunteer victims their first 24 hours of field care.
The second day focused on transferring patients from the remote location to the hub village and then to Anchorage for increasing levels of care.
"Maniilaq Health Center received the first six patients and at that point, they had surged their capacity," said Hedberg. "We went through a full activation. We had 15,000 pounds of equipment and it took two C-130s to transport everything up."
According to Wilcox, Nome also participated tabletop-style, by simulating taking over some of the patients at its hospital that couldn't be treated in Kotzebue.
They worked out of a tent-style field hospital with a physician, several nurses, and other operations staff.
"We triaged them outside the base of operations and then we had a red tent and a green/yellow tent. The critical patients went to red and the walking wounded went to green/yellow," said Hedberg. "They treated them and stabilized them and then we had a patient movement team that coordinated with our Anchorage office. Those patients were then 'flown to Anchorage.'"
None of the 'casualties' were actually taken out of Kotzebue but all of the cogs in the response wheel moved as though they were.
"These communities don't have a great deal of resources and it doesn't take much to overwhelm their emergency management capabilities, such as their hospitals and local health care sites," said Wilcox. "So, this exercise helped point out some of those gaps and they were able to figure out what their capacity is and at what point they have to turn people away and what kind of injuries they can treat or not."
The second component was testing whether or not it was possible to temporarily house and stage enough responders in a remote location to actually handle the situation at hand.
"Every time we complete an exercise, we always learn something new and identify successes and areas for improvement," said Hedberg. "We continue to hone our processes and develop better relationships with our partner agencies and that's what makes us more effective."
Also, each of the villages around Kotzebue sent one emergency management representative to take part. They helped transport patients to and from the helicopters and planes and got to observe the system at work.
"If this wasn't Kotzebue, if this was Noorvik or another village, we could set up the exact same base of operations," explained Hedberg. "They were able to see the capabilities we can leverage, how we expedite that patient care and make sure they are triaged, stabilized, and sent to the highest level of care as quickly as possible and how we integrate with our military and state partners."
The one component that wasn't included in Arctic Chinook was a mock environmental disaster, which could easily accompany — or even be the reason for — a mass maritime evacuation of a cruise liner or other such ship.
"There's a lot of interest in that kind of scenario," said Wilcox. "Obviously, there were about a thousand players in this exercise when you count up all the people in the various crews and support and state assets. To some extent, we're progressively improving our capacity. We wanted to walk before we ran. But, there are eight Arctic nations that are trying to improve their capabilities, so there are ongoing work groups that are discussing that."
There is also the potential for future joint international training exercises like Arctic Chinook that could focus specifically on disasters like oil spills or other environmental hazards.
For now, Wilcox said he's happy with the way this particular exercise unfolded and was glad so many local partners participated.
"We made a lot of great inroads and got to know our partners and our common strengths and what we need to work on."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.