When I first asked the Emergency Management Institute at the National Emergency Training Center to consider hosting an international version of its Integrated Emergency Management Course, for all the border counties of Arizona as well as Sonora, Mexico, I knew it would certainly be a departure from any other version of the class from the recent past.

From the start I was guided by some very savvy and experienced people from the Emergency Management Institute. Sabrina Bateman and Douglas Kahn came out to Santa Cruz County, Arizona, and I asked my neighboring emergency management counterparts from both Cochise and Yuma counties to meet up with us to help plot out the four-day program.  I knew right away that this was not Sabrina and Doug’s first rodeo.

As we got to work planning, I soon discovered that this international Integrated Emergency Management Course was destined to be something special.  

If there was an underlying theme, it was “You don’t know what you don’t know,” which we all seemed to agree upon.

We decided right away to not only focus on the hazards facing all of us along the border, but to bring local and regional subject matter experts forward to share important information and build relationships. By doing this we were able to provide our group with what “you don’t know” to get all of us more prepared. 

We also expressed an interest in ‘getting one under our belt’ before we had an actual widespread disaster along the border, which is precisely what the Integrated Emergency Management Course is designed to do.

Rather than focus the entire class on one large exercise, the team opted to do three exercises based on real events that could potentially challenge each of our communities.

Our first exercise was a large fire at the Douglas Port of Entry with the flames spreading into Mexico. Next, a train derailment near Yuma, Arizona, complete with a hazardous materials spill across the border. And finally, a major flood in Nogales, Arizona, including structural collapse issues, evacuations, and significant public health issues, thanks to a ruptured sewer line, rounded out the week.

We were to have our counterparts from Mexico also attending the program so we would need translators for everything.

Our course, with its complex exercises, would prove to be a tall order to fill as we considered having 65 to 70 attendees from three counties, Arizona’s State Emergency Management, the American Red Cross, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region IX, the State Department and an international contingent from Mexico. 

As we prepared for the program, we simply did not have enough lead time to conform to all the international travel and security requirements for our Mexican counterparts to attend. 

As a Plan B, we opted to include the contingent from Mexico via a demonstration project for WebEOC (a collaboration program designed for emergency and crisis situations) currently underway along the border. This demonstration project (funded by the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission via a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) allowed us to include Mexico in the exercises remotely.  With the help of the team behind WebEOC, we had already trained up Civil Protection in Hermosillo, the state capital of Sonora, and also the sister-cities of Agua Prieta, Nogales, and San Luis Colorado. Why not branch out?  Just because we never tried anything as extensive as this before, was not a reason to hold back.  Full steam ahead …

We pulled it off beyond all expectations. 

Over the four days we had local, state, and regional presenters offer important information to our mixed group. We followed the presentations with three tabletop exercises. 

We not only wrote scenarios that were translated and uploaded into the bi-national WebEOC demonstration project, but we also projected the fire, hazardous materials spill and flooding on the Simtable (a computer-based simulation tool).   

The National Emergency Training Center IT staff were able to capture our video output signal and send it to all the rooms being used for the exercise. We were able to split our groups into teams: decision makers and elected officials in the Policy Group and those directly responsible for deployment and management of resources made up the Operations Group.

To our surprise, the very flooding issue we had planned for day four of the course actually occurred in Santa Cruz County while we were there. 

A tropical depression approached from the Gulf of Mexico just as we had written into our flooding exercise. So for a few hours, the Santa Cruz County team formed up for real, got a situation briefing, and managed the evacuation of a portion of Patagonia—a town on the eastern part of our county.

After it was all said and done, I was reminded of a famous movie in a way, “If you plan for it, it will come.”

Our Integrated Emergency Management Course was, in just a few words, an exceptional experience, and certainly one that will have positive impacts for years to come for cross-border preparedness.

If you are considering applying for an Integrated Emergency Management Course program, I would encourage you to just do it.  Like us, I am certain you have officials and staff who “don’t know what they don’t know,” so I would encourage you to develop your own concept and apply for an Integrated Emergency Management Course. 

It will be a lot of very hard work putting it all together, but remember, you have experts at the Emergency Management Institute to help you along the path.