Got a disaster? Who you gonna call? Military members from U.S. Africa Command are now even more prepared to assist in answering that call after attending the Joint Humanitarian Operations Course (JHOC) offered at the command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
The two-day course equips students with the knowledge to be disaster response savvy. JHOC prepares DoD personnel by helping them understand the civil-military roles in international disaster response. It is also the only non-DoD course for which U.S. military personnel can receive joint education credits, according to Angela Sherbenou, one of the course instructors, who also serves as an advisor to U.S. Africa Command on foreign disaster assistance.
The course was developed by personnel from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), and provides participants the opportunity to gain an overview of the complexity involved in any disaster response. Recently, more than 30 participants from U.S. Africa Command participated in the course at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, August, 20-21.
In his opening remarks, Rear Admiral Richard Landolt, Director, Operations/Cyber, or J3, U.S. Africa Command, shared his experience as the U.S. joint task force commander in response to the Indonesia Earthquake near Padang, Sumatra, 2009. At that time, he was serving as the Commander, Amphibious Forces 7th Fleet, headquartered in Okinawa, Japan, when he was called upon to lead the U.S. effort for disaster assistance.
That is where he met and worked hand-in-hand with Angela Sherbenou from USAID’s OFDA. Among the many lessons learned was the challenge of agency acronyms. But common to both was the desire to heed the call to help people in distress, albeit in a coordinated, collaborative way.
JHOC training began in 2004, and was taught just a few times a year but quickly became an in-demand and highly desirable course for learning how the U.S. government works across Federal agencies and in tandem with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) to respond to disasters around the globe.
Students learn about roles, lines of responsibilities and the “belly-buttons” that alert and energize simultaneously occurring actions that bring assets from the U.S. and pre-positioned locations around the world to bear in Herculean, synchronized efforts to relieve human suffering.
Unique Capabilities of the U.S. Military
Arielle Giegerich, who is based in Washington with USAID, flew to Stuttgart to assist Sherbenou in teaching the course to AFRICOM staff.
When asked why this course was important for DoD personnel, Giegerich, who’s taught the course for the past several years, said, “We are OFDA and disaster response is what we do 365 days a year. Many of these events are handled without military assistance, but there are many times that we require the unique capabilities of the U.S. military, so it’s critical that we communicate early and often when we join in disaster mitigation. The U.S. military will become involved when civilian response capacity is overwhelmed and civilian authorities request assistance. So that is why we prioritize teaching this course to DoD personnel, because for the next disaster, it’s not a matter of if, but when.”
“Last month, when the course was taught at the U.S Mission in New York, representatives from 27 countries participated, among them were emergency responders from eight countries in Africa - Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, Togo, Nigeria, Benin, Morocco and Namibia. On the continent, Nairobi is the place for emergency responders to be; they have a lot of capacity,” said Giegerich.
“Each year, America responds to an average of 70 disasters world-wide, most of which are flood-related. Over the next two days, you’ll learn the process OFDA uses to determine the types of disasters and what kind of response each merits, and how people and assets deploy to save lives, alleviate human suffering and reduce the economic and social impact of these events,” said Sherbenou to a classroom packed with students.
Tyranny of Distance
Overcoming challenges, particularly in moving assets over long distances to the affected area which has usually suffered major impact to its infrastructure, is critical and still must be timely in any relief effort, said Landolt. He emphasized that creating trust and cooperation through engagement, and establishing openness and transparency in communication served as important enablers for the mission.
Another asset, which Landolt used for the first time in this environment, was social media. He talked about the importance of leveraging social media to help communicate to people, saying, “We opened a Twitter account to let people know what we were doing – in a effort to open communications, and found that the local papers soon began to echo our messages in their news coverage of events.”
Learning through scenario
Participants were led through a disaster response scenario in which they had to place cards which represented specific actions on a 15-day timeline.
“Begin re-deployment of DART back to US; transition grant monitoring to USAID Mission”
“First NGO proposals submitted to OFDA from CARE and CRS”
“Disaster Assistance Response Team notification”
Where would you begin? This was the challenge for the JHOC participants, who worked in groups, then placed their cards along the timeline where they thought was most logical.
“This particular exercise really helped me to appreciate what is happening on the other end,” said Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Karen Brun, a drilling Reservist with AFRICOM’s Office of Public Affairs, who has served on the operational end of disaster response missions in the past. “Now I understand why we need to follow up with certain requirements that really just did not make sense to me before. Now I know that someone back in DC is using this data to evaluate what went right and what didn’t work, so we can do it better next time.”
“One thing that is important to know is that we don’t just jump in when disaster does strike,” said Sherbenou. “We must wait until the country where the affected area is located asks, or agrees to accept our help. We can be in a position to launch by notifying critical assets, among them our military, but only up to a certain point. It’s only when we receive positive confirmation from our senior leaders that the affected country has asked for or agreed to assistance from the U.S. government that we engage.”
“To save lives, alleviate human suffering and reduce the economic and social impact of disasters,” these are among OFDA’s mandates. This is why we teach this course.
To learn more about OFDA, please visit their website at: