Agencies test cross-border emergency communication

Mt. Baker

By Oliver Lazenby

If or when Mt. Baker eventually erupts, its effects won’t necessarily be constrained by international borders. To prepare for that awkward fact, the latest in a series of emergency response exercises focused on cross border communication in the event of a natural disaster on the active volcano.

The exercise on November 15 and 16 allowed agencies on both sides of the border to test equipment and procedures for communicating in the event of a lahar or volcanic debris flow crossing into Canada after an eruption.

The exercise was led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and the Defense Research and Development Canada Center for Security Science. “It went very well,” said John Gargett, deputy director of emergency management with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, which was involved in the exercise.

“Here in the sheriff’s office we were able to test our new communications equipment, which did work as expected and that’s helping to augment our response capability,” he said.

The exercise tested wireless communication capabilities and the ability to move resources and people across the border, among other things, according to a joint press release.

The U.S. Geological Survey helped develop the emergency scenario to ensure that it would be realistic. In the scenario, the Sherman Crater wall near Mt. Baker’s summit collapses after an eruption, sending a lahar down valley that causes extensive damage in both Washington and B.C.

Debris flowing from Mt. Baker would most likely put communities along the Nooksack, Baker and Skagit rivers in danger, but it’s possible that a large lahar in the Nooksack River valley could cross a divide near Everson and reach the Sumas River, according to Natural Resources Canada. The Sumas River flows into the Chilliwack River at Barrowtown, B.C., which then flows into the Fraser River and reaches the Salish Sea at Richmond, B.C., part of the Metro Vancouver area.

The exercise was the fifth in a series called Canada-United States Enhanced Resiliency Experiments (CAUSE), which began in 2011. The exercises focus on different aspects of disaster response. Past CAUSE exercises have emphasized the logistics of transporting patients across the border and the compatibility of techniques and equipment for responding to emergencies, among other things, Gargett said.

“Whatcom County and the Lower Mainland are, by their geographic makeup, somewhat isolated compared to other border regions, so we have a common interest in supporting each other,” Gargett said. “Since 2011 when the experiments began we have made a very concerted effort to make sure we are working together and jointly with Canadian agencies.”

Other agencies involved with last week’s exercise include the cities of Abbotsford, and Langley, B.C., Canada Border Services Agency, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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