By Dana Sanders and Matt Warin
As a detachment of Pararescuemen (PJs) aboard two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters circle the skies above Zagreb, embassy personnel prepare roughly 40 injured evacuees for vertical airlift to Pleso Air Base in Croatia’s capital city. Operation DINARIC—named after the Dinaric Alps in Croatia—is in full swing, and Embassy Zagreb’s emergency action team is fully deployed.
Each year, embassies and consulates around the world must complete a Crisis Management Exercise (CME) to demonstrate their preparedness for natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other emergencies. For most posts, a trainer from the Crisis Management Training (CMT) division at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) facilitates the exercise with an expanded Emergency Action Committee (EAC) utilizing a post-specific scenario.
Embassy Zagreb, when presented with the opportunity to work with the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) and Croatian Ministries of Defense and Interior, they put into motion a more complex non-combatant evacuation operation that expanded their regularly scheduled CMT-facilitated CME. This exercise involved fixed and rotary wing assets dispatched from Italy and the United Kingdom, U.S. special operations pararescue and host country special police services working in tandem with the embassy security, consular and Defense Attaché offices.
As Tom Verhagen, assistant regional security officer, explained, “An Air Force unit moved to Aviano, Italy, from England, and they were interested in finding new areas in the region to train. They wanted to do a small medevac scenario with the embassy, which grew into this large scale evacuation exercise.”
The exercise allowed the EAC and the embassy as a whole to test post’s Emergency Action Plan and meet multiple training objectives at once, including emergency response, accountability, earthquake response drill, coordination with military assets in the region and cooperation with the host government.
Operation DINARIC had several components spread across three days. The CMT trainer conducted multiple training sessions to explore crisis leadership concepts with the EAC, review earthquake plans with Mission staff and discuss personal and professional preparedness. An earthquake and evacuation drill at the embassy put the Marine Security Guard and local guard force to the test and included several “injuries” to test out the medical unit’s volunteer first responder team. Next, the consular section ran a full consular task force, complete with volunteer role players calling in as worried family members. Staff members fielded the calls and entered their information into the Consular Task Force software. The Management office ran a full accountability drill for all employees and eligible family members (EFMs), and the EAC participated in a tabletop exercise. By the end of the tabletop, the EAC simulated a request for assistance from European Command to evacuate U.S. citizens from the earthquake zone.
The real excitement started on day three as the USAFE helicopters and a SOCEUR MC-130J Commando II special mission aircraft joined the exercise. Their first mission was to rescue a VIP, played by a member of the embassy staff, who was giving a speech at the Croatian Police Academy when the earthquake occurred. The PJs, arriving by helicopter, extracted the VIP from her armored car in the midst of a riot and airlifted her to safety. This exercise required close coordination with the Ministry of Interior and the police academy, which facilitated the simulated riot, helicopter landing and all-hands-on-deck training scenario. Police cadets played the role of rioters, and the Croatian Special Police assisted the PJs with security and personnel recovery.
After bringing the VIP safely back to the airport, the PJs then flew to rescue a group of stranded EFMs. The EFMs could not make it across the Sava River to the embassy and were in various states of injury. The PJs performed emergency medical care and, in shifts, airlifted EFMs to the airports.
At the same time, a simulated major medical emergency at the embassy compound required embassy medical staff to transport a patient to the airport, where a helicopter then transported him to the hospital.
While the helicopters made their rounds over Zagreb, consular staff stood up evacuation stations at the airport to simulate processing private U.S. citizen and EFM evacuees who needed emergency passports, promissory notes and other assistance. Motor pool vehicles scrambled to ferry passengers to locations across town for their helicopter pickups. Security and communications personnel tracked air and ground movements from multiple sites throughout the city. Local guards hardened perimeter security at the embassy. Public Affairs arranged for media access to the police academy and made sure the public was widely aware of the training exercise in advance.
Once all of the evacuees were processed, the crew of the SOCEUR’s MC-130 loaded all of the evacuees and took them on a short flight around Zagreb and safely landed back at the air base.
Verhagen said, “The hardest part of planning this exercise was getting all of the different entities on one page. We had several departments on the U.S. side, but we also needed coordination with different ministries within the Croatian government.”
Due to the embassy’s excellent relationship with the host government, organizers had high-level access to the ministries of Defense, Interior and Health and received full cooperation from them. One of the many important takeaways was learning how different stakeholders operate in a multiagency, multilateral operation.
“It was a good lesson to remember that, while everyone is cooperating, each entity has its own priority, and they may not match the embassy’s priority,” explained Verhagen.
These exercises are critical opportunities for embassies and consulates to take stock of their capabilities and clearly identify the roles of emergency response personnel. With Hurricanes Maria and Irma, the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, the embassy attack in Tunis and the mass evacuation of U.S. citizens from Yemen still fresh in the Department of State’s collective memory, Operation DINARIC offered an invaluable training opportunity for Mission Croatia personnel that will better prepare them for future challenges requiring disaster response and interagency cooperation on a large and complex scale.
While not every CME can benefit directly from proximity to military assets, FSI’s Crisis Management Training team has introduced hands-on elements to their biennial exercises that get people out of the office and into an operating environment one can expect to face in the event of a real emergency.
For more information about Crisis Management Exercises and training, please contact CMT@state.gov.
Dana Sanders was a consular officer at Embassy Zagreb and is currently a line officer on the Executive Secretariat staff. Matt Warin is the general services officer at Embassy Zagreb.