SALIMA, Malawi - The Malawi Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DODMA) and members of the Malawi Defense Force (MDF) participated in its first disaster relief table top exercise in Lilongwe, Malawi, August 7-9.

U.S. Army Africa with DODMA and MDF coordinated the exercise as part of Southern Accord 2016, which simultaneously included a command post exercise based on U.N. peacekeeping operations ongoing in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

SA16 is a USARAF-led annual, combined military exercise that brings together U.S. military personnel with African partner nations to improve readiness, promote interoperability, build capacity and strengthen partner relationships.

When asked what else the MDF wanted assistance with in addition to the CPX, they requested a simulated exercise that would help them review and refine flood assistance efforts based on the flood that covered more than half the country in early 2015.

"The actual idea for a table top or disaster relief exercise came from the Malawi Defense Force," said Brig. Gen. Jon A. Jensen, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Africa. "In coordination with the Malawi Defense Force, we came up with the concept of how we should go about it."

During natural disaster response missions military assets are used to provide transportation, conduct search and rescue operations, and provide other assistance as requested by DODMA.

"We have the land component, the air component, the logistics component and also the marine component," said Lt. Col. Precious Basikolo, commanding officer for MDF in the exercise. "I'm there to organize all these components so we can successfully support the search and rescue or the disaster management as a whole."

According to U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs website ReliefWeb, by January 27, 2015 the floods affected an estimated 638,000 people and killed at least 79 people, while 153 were missing. A state of emergency had been issued for 15 out of 28 districts. The flooding left more than 800,000 Malawian's food insecure and thousands displaced.

"Malawi is usually affected by floods almost every year in some parts of the country," said James Chiusimua, director of disaster response for DODMA. "Even when we have normal rains, because of the low-lying nature of some parts of the country, floods will come."

Chiusimua said last year was the first time DODMA established national and district-level emergency operation centers in reaction to the floods. During the TTX, participating organizations reviewed challenges amongst the emergency operation centers, as well as refined procedures to improve coordination efforts on the likeliness of another flood occurring.

"Four districts had emergency operation centers established," Chiusimua said. "We were learning how to do the cluster system for the first time, so there were some gaps."

Clusters are specialized sections of assistance, such as logistics, coordination, and military forces. They include MDF, DODMA, and governmental and non-governmental organizations. Together they must collaborate and communicate to meet the needs of their people.

"I feel that after this exercise the participants will have gained knowledge in terms of what the different clusters ought to do and how they must relate with each other to make sure that you have a coordinated response," Chiusimua said. "I think we're improving on our timeliness and our effectiveness of our response efforts."

U.S. Army Africa assembled a team during SA16 planning conferences to help DODMA construct the TTX as well as to provide guidance and expertise from their own experiences from natural disasters.

"What we've been able to do is identify some key resources," Jensen said. "There are some key personnel from the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations, the Netherlands, and the U.S. Army, specifically the North Carolina Army National Guard."

"All of these international organizations and military organizations have experience, either in their home state of North Carolina or across the world, in disaster response," Jensen said. "So, they're able to take all of those experiences and come apply it."

Subject matter experts provided a week of classroom instruction prior to the actual exercise to show Malawian responders their practices and policy.

"We had multiple presentations on the U.S. national response framework, the incident command system, as well as the integration of civilians and military during disaster relief in the United States response program," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Larry Coleman, deputy commander of 60th Troop Command, NCANG.

Even though the terrain, economy and infrastructure of North Carolina differs greatly from that of Malawi, Coleman noted that they share similar concerns for responding to natural disasters.

"It's interesting to see a lot of the same questions that the Malawi Defense Force is asking right now are still the things that we talk about in the United States," Coleman said. "How do we fully support the civilians when they're going through a disaster? what is the economic impact? How does that impact the soldiers that are deploying?"

"I think it just provides a shared understanding that we can give to the Malawi Defense Force as they move forward in developing their disaster preparedness plan," he added.

After the flood scenario began, exercise observers gave participants injects, which are events that occur within a scenario and force participants to make decisions driving the exercise forward.

Injects were designed to meet each organization's goals and based on real world disaster relief operations in Malawi, the U.S. and areas where Dutch soldiers provided relief assistance. Each cluster conducted their own internal analysis based on the inject then communicated across the clusters to combine efforts.

"Now we are comparing the three, the USA way of doing it, the Netherlands way of doing it and our own way of doing it, and look at it as an opportunity to learn," Basikolo said. "We are exchanging
ideas. I believe each of us is learning new things and will be able to improve our way of doing things."

Even though it has provided useful feedback for those involved, U.S. Army observers stressed that this TTX is not meant to act as a stand-alone long-term solution. Instead, it must be cyclical as variables and staff change over time.

"This can't be a one-time event," Jensen said. "It needs to regular, it needs to be routine, and to really get to a level of expertise, it has to be rehearsed and become part of the annual training plan."

Participants agreed and hope to extend the next simulated exercise beyond the national level and down to the districts.

"A table top is easier because it does not require a lot of funding and it is something that, as a department, we will suggest that do on an annual basis at national level, but also at district level, so that all stakeholders that are involved in the responding to disasters which involves saving lives of people," Chiusimua said.