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(L-R) The FCO’s Miami-based Law Enforcement Adviser Larry Covington, RCIPS Commissioner David Baines & Head of the Caribbean and Bermuda Section of the FCO Tony Bates.

The exercise was valuable, and demonstrated that all agencies...

Mr. Joseph Woods Jr.

Published 22nd May 2012, 10:3am

A mock major cruise ship ‘accident’ in George Town Harbour on Tuesday, 24 April saw top Cayman Islands’ officials, especially emergency responders, turn out in force to react to the planned exercise.

The operation, code-named ‘Exercise Save Vessel’, was the second comprehensive table-top exercise to test Cayman’s ability to respond to an incident involving a cruise ship. The first took place in 2007.

This week’s scenario saw a vessel with over 5,000 passengers and crew aboard hit a reef, rupture its hull and lose power in the process. The simulation exercise served to test the Port Disaster Contingency Plan as well and other plans of the Emergency Services and the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC).

The drill provided a credible representation of what could happen in a maritime disaster, and required the country’s response mechanism to be fully employed and tested.

It incorporated the hierarchy of the government, a shipping agent, all emergency response entities and the 17 sub-committees of the National Emergency Operating Centre, as well as non-government organisations and private entities.

At the opening ceremony His Excellency the Governor Duncan Taylor, CBE welcomed the participants and emphasised the importance of establishing collective strategies to respond to such a contingency.

Also participating were the Governor’s Office and three observers from the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO), as well as the local Port Authority, Cayman Maritime Agency, Bodden Shipping, Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, Cayman Islands Fire Service, Health Services Authority, and the Departments of Immigration and Children and Family Services.

Mr. Joseph Woods Jr., the Port Authority’s Manager of Cruise Operations and Security, said, “The exercise was valuable, and demonstrated that all agencies involved in emergency response in the Cayman Islands work cohesively to fulfil their roles and responsibilities.” He added that, once evaluated, future exercises will test specific components of the refined plan.

The FCO’s three-member team were Disaster Management Adviser Frank Savage, Miami-based Prison and Law Enforcement Adviser Larry Covington, and Head of the Caribbean and Bermuda Section Tony Bates.

“I’m absolutely exhausted -- and I’m just an observer,” said Mr. Savage at the conclusion. In his remarks and critique during the debrief he noted, “This was one of the most professional desktop exercises I’ve seen in recent times. They threw at you politicians, sharks and the kitchen sink, and the way you worked together to resolve the issues was outstanding.”

Noting that he will submit a more detailed report in coming days, Mr. Savage added: “I’m fairly confident that you now understand the magnitude of such a disaster... and I’m heartened and reassured of your proficiency in the area of disaster management.”

While stating that Cayman’s hurricane response plans are “the best in the region”, he pointed out areas of the port response plans that need scrutiny and possible revision.

These issues include the need to consult with the owner of the vessel, minimising reputational damage and legal liabilities, dealing with the global media, managing and sorting the rescued passengers, and using the services of local tourism providers.

“While your hurricane shelters are the best in the region, they would be overwhelmed,” said Mr. Savage. He also spoke of the lessons learned from a similar exercise held in Miami last month for benefit of the major cruise lines. His final advice was: “Go back, refine it and come up with an improved response plan.”

Speaking of the task of coordinating the many agencies involved, Hazard Management Cayman Islands’ Deputy Director Omar Afflick said, “This exercise was very useful, and helped us identify gaps in our plans, which will in turn allow us to improve our planning and response capabilities.”

He added that, as one of the most popular cruise ports-of-call in the region, it important to be prepared and to respond appropriately and efficiently in case of such an incident.

Mr. Bates, who has seen several years’ service with the Governor’s Office in the Cayman Islands, also thought it “was a great learning exercise”. He noted that in such an event, the UK’s Disaster Coordination Group would begin their work “within the hour”.

He said the FCO would also mobilise its Crisis Management Department and Press Office, working closely with Cayman’s Governor and government officials. The UK would also coordinate the use of assets offered by the USA and regional countries such as Honduras which have naval capacities.

Mr. Bates added the UK’s parliamentary interests in Cayman, and he said that Miami-based FCO Rapid Deployment Team would immediately come together to offer help from a distance, or to send assistance. These capacities range from establishing a UK call-centre, to relaying input from technical experts.

In closing, he added, “The ship’s crew should also be utilised in the rescue efforts, for they are trained for such emergencies.” The next major preparedness event is a Disaster Management Seminar, which will be held in Miami in May.