CRUISIN'— A cruise ship and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter anchor in Nome's roadstead in September 2015. A multi-agency drill is scheduled for this summer that simulates a major cruise ship disaster.

Dept. of Defense plans summer SAR drill in Nome and region

Just a day after the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity – carrying 1,000 passengers and 600 crew members – is scheduled to depart Nome in August, a multi-agency Search and Rescue drill will be conducted in the region.

According to the Alaska Command of the Department of Defense, the operation “Arctic Chinook” is scheduled to take place over a five-day period starting August 22 in Nome, Kotzebue and Tin City. The Crystal Serenity is scheduled to leave Nome on August 21, after a day land visit in Nome.

While it would have been prudent to schedule the international SAR exercise before the Crystal Serenity arrives in the region – this marks the first time that a cruise ship of this size, carrying this many passengers visits the region and plans a Northwest Passage voyage from Anchorage to New York City- Captain Anastasia Wasem, director public affairs of the Alaska Command, said the dates were first available dates that all agencies involved could participate.

According to Wasem, the purpose of the exercise is to conduct a live field training exercise with multiple agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army, the National Guard, the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services’ Homeland Security, the U.S. Weather Service and Canadian units. The live field training exercise is to test medical, logistics, infrastructure and includes participation by appropriate rescue coordination centers as well as the unified command structure.

The scenario is that a cruise ship is in distress off the Arctic coast and a search and rescue of passengers and crew is to be conducted. “It is to go out, perform rescues, bring them back to land and set up a facility for mock treatment,” said Wasem.

Wasem said the planning is still in its initial phases and she could not go into specifics of local involvement. The planning will be finalized in the last week of June, she said.

Tom Vaden, Nome’s Local Emergency Planning Committee chair, had been part of the first planning teleconference meeting. Vaden said the exercise is part of the Search and Rescue agreement made by the six Arctic Council nations. “We simulate the search and rescue of a cruise ship disaster on the Bering Strait,” Vaden said. Vaden added that a Canadian SAR helicopter would be involved in the exercise. He said that several organizations within Nome will participate.

Shawn Eggert with the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that District 17 and Sector Anchorage will play a large role in the exercise, both with air and maritime assets.

Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management,  said that the exercise includes establishing a remote medical facility, presumably at Tin City, and then testing the ability to transport the patients or passengers to permanent medical facilities in Nome and Kotzebue and eventually out of the region. “What I understand, there are three phases to this exercise,” Zidek said. “The first is a maritime SAR situation, where a vessel is in distress and passengers need to be transported to a temporary facility in a remote location.” Phase two is to provide medical care in a remotely set up tent camp and phase three is to transport the victims to other regional hospitals. “Once the Coast Guard gets them on to land, the military will test its capability to set up temporary facilities and provide medical care in a remote location, like a tent camp.”

Zidek said the Alaska National Guard and the Northwest Arctic Borough and Nome emergency response organizations are also part of the exercise.

“We all train separately, and everyone is pretty good at their mission, but when those missions overlap, we need to coordinate and test our capability to do so,” Zidek said.

This exercise is the first of its kind in Alaskan waters.

Zidek said that this exercise is fairly unique as it mocks an explorer class cruise ship disaster. As the Arctic sea ice decreases, cruise ships are now exploring the new frontier that was once locked up by ice.

The Crystal Serenity is scheduled to leave Anchorage on August 16, sails via Kodiak and Dutch Harbor to Nome, where a one-day visit is scheduled on August 21. They then sail through the Bering Strait and the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to make landfall on August 27 at Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The cruise stops in Nunavut, Canada, Ilulissat and Nuuk, Greenland before sailing to Maine, Boston, Newport and their final destination New York City to be reached Sept. 17.

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