COLUMBUS, Ga. (Aug. 23, 2018) -- Military and civilian personnel from Latin America worked closely with local emergency services from Fort Benning and Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama, to rescue survivors of a notional flood, who were stranded on the islands of the Chattahoochee River in Columbus Aug. 10.

The 29 military and civilian personnel from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and Paraguay were taking part in the culminating exercise of their Interagency Crisis Action Planning course (IACAP) at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

The course prepares students to take part in crisis response activities, especially as military in support of civilian authorities. The situational training exercise is the culmination of the course, in which they put to use all they learned.

"With missions like this, or operations, you cannot do it on your own," said Sgt. 1st Class Jose Reyes, WHINSEC instructor. "You have to be able to talk the language of the different institutes and be able to liaise or understand the capabilities and limitations with the different institutions that you have throughout your operations."

The final exercise takes place on the Chattahoochee River. In the exercise scenario, a flood has stricken Bibb City, a satellite town upriver from Columbus, and has washed 15 of the town's residents downriver, stranding them among the rocks and roaring churn of the river. The role players, some of whom wear the red dye of simulated injuries, are located on the islands at the bottom of the Chattahoochee River rapids. The students coordinate with emergency services to corral efforts and resources. They use drones to get an eye on the role players. They take boats to the islands, move the role players to the Phenix City shores, and triage the injuries. If one of the role players has an injured leg, they must stabilize the injury before getting the role player onto the boat. And on the Columbus side of the river, they check names on a board and track the stati of the injured, updating the notional mayor of Bibb City on the progress of rescue operation.

"We always focused in on major disasters and emergencies, because that's what we felt like the students would be faced with when they returned to their home countries," said Riley Land, the deputy director of emergency management, Homeland Security Division, Columbus Fire and EMS. "And we focused mainly on how the United States military interacts with civilian jurisdictions into that doctrine of military support in civilian jurisdictions. I know they do it a little differently in different countries, but we showed them how we did it."

Land said the exercise began 24 years ago when representatives from what was then the U.S. Army School of Americas approached Land to see whether they could pool local civilian resources. Early on, the class performed tabletop exercises, where resources were only notionally deployed and tracked by the emergency responders.

"It evolved into real-life exercises so that we could not only learn in the classroom, but then go out in the field and deploy some resources and do some resource management," said Land. "We do a day of instruction, a day of tabletop, and that's fun, but there's nothing like getting out in the field and doing it."

"The best way to learn is to apply it, so we establish a scenario, which they will have to come into, tap into local resources, and then use those resources, manage them along with their own assets that they bring, and actually work a full-blown scenario," said Chuck Herlth, a training officer at Columbus Fire and EMS.

Between the Fort Benning and the local communities' emergency assets, the students had six boats and water rescue personnel. Back and forth, up and down the river, the boats propelled to the islands and back to the Phenix City shores. There, from non-injurious to moribund, the rescued role players were placed according to their injuries in green-, yellow-, red- and black-tarped areas for triage. Those with critical injuries, placed in the red-tarped area, would be evacuated first. Herlth said the Columbus emergency crew had received a letter from a former student thanking them for teaching injury prioritization.

"They had never seen the tagging system of the colored tarps," said Herlth. "He had never prioritized victims. As they found them, they transported them, which costs victims their lives."

Reyes said one of the fruits of the course is stimulating interagency cooperation.

"Even in our last course, from the months from March to April, when the guys graduated, the team from Colombia actually started working together," he said. "It was inter-agency cooperation between their Colombian army and Colombian police. So we've already seen the value of the course."

Lt. Sylvia Acosta of the Colombian navy, works as a director of a sensibility campaign for the general command of the military forces of Colombia and she handles logistics concerning "integral action," which is the Colombian version of civil affairs. She took part of the course to gain a broader understanding of civil affairs and how to adapt that knowledge into the Colombian military.

"It is different when you realize the different civilian activities," said Acosta. "And it is different when putting yourself into action to be able to react to such different evacuations. It is a new exercise for me."

Acosta said one of the values of the class was networking with fellow students, who represented a diversity of cultures, career paths, and knowledge bases.

"We held knowledge that was not provided in class," said Acosta. "We have knowledge from other countries and other careers. It's something magical. It's a very nice experience."

The culminating exercise of the course also exemplifies the civil-military cooperation in the form of the ongoing relationship between town and garrison, which is solidified through practice and preparation.

"It just shows the collaboration between Fort Benning and Columbus," said Land.

Columbus and Fort Benning hold a mutual aid agreement and frequently perform crisis management exercises together, according to William Pagels, the deputy chief of Fort Benning Fire.

"We try to do at least one exercise event for no other reason than to maintain familiarity with our equipment, their equipment, our people, their people," said Pagels. "Should we ever have a natural disaster, everybody knows who everybody is already."

To learn more about WHINSEC, visit www.benning.army.mil/tenant/whinsec.

To learn more about Fort Benning's Directorate of Emergency Services, visit www.benning.army.mil/Garrison/DES.