BY DENISE MAYCOCK
Tribune Freeport Reporter
FREEPORT – A joint mass rescue operation exercise, dubbed Operation Black Swann, was officially launched at the Freeport Harbour on Tuesday by officials from the US Coast Guard and US Embassy, NEMA, and other disaster stakeholders on the island.
The exercise aims to test and evaluate emergency response and evacuation procedures in the event of a catastrophic disaster in Bahamian waters.
The Bahamas is a major cruise destination and thousands of US visitors are passengers on cruise ships that call at ports here.
NEMA Director Capt Stephen Russell was among a number government officials participating in the exercise, which runs from April 1 through 4.
The cruise line industry is also playing a major part in the exercise, which involves using Royal Caribbean International’s Monarch of the Seas as the scene of an evacuation, Norwegian Cruise Line to practice managing a landing site, and Carnival Cruise Line’s Care Team to practice taking care of passengers and crew.
Other phases of the exercise involve search and rescue co-ordination; the abandon ship process and accountability of passengers and crew; landing site management and a medical surge with mass casualty incident procedures.
When The Tribune arrived at Freeport Harbour, the exercise was well underway. Emergency crews were on hand and a Coast Guard vessel was just coming into port.
This is the first time that an operation of this magnitude is being held in the Bahamas.
Prior to the exercise, representatives of various US and Bahamas government agencies held a series of meetings on Grand Bahama.
The exercise will help Bahamian and US officials work together to implement and enforce procedures that will increase awareness and ensure preparedness in the event of catastrophic occurrences that require mass rescue operation at sea or ashore.
According to a government press statement, the exercise has been in the making since 2010.
Captain Russell said even though NEMA is monitoring the exercise, a “post mortem” will be conducted to see how the country can improve its response plan.
“We are also mindful that there are ports of call in New Providence and other Family Island areas where cruise ships anchor. We need to see what mechanisms are in place to determine what needs to be improved,” he said.
Administrator for the City of Freeport District, Alexander Williams, said that the exercise will test the strengths and weaknesses of the NEMA office on Grand Bahama.
“We are observing the US in this exercise. We are learning from this exercise and it is going to put to test our readiness for this kind of life incident, if it were to happen,” Mr Williams said.
He added, “It will put to the test the skills of our agents such as Customs and Immigration. It will also put to test our health care facilities and how quickly we can screen persons in determining whether they need to be airlifted because of injuries. It will also put to the test the customs and immigration agencies and how quickly they can airlift persons to the US for care.”
During a recent trip to Grand Bahama in February, American Embassy Acting Deputy Chief of Mission John Armstrong described the exercise as the largest of its type ever attempted.
Mr Armstrong said that the exercise is important to the US and the Bahamas because some five to six million Americans travel to the Bahamas every year.
There have been several cruise ship disasters around the world, including the Costa Concordia, which ran aground on a reef off the coast of Tuscany, Italy, in January 2012 and toppled onto its side. Of the 4,000 persons aboard, 32 died and 64 were injured.
It was also a disaster at sea for passengers on the Carnival Triumph. Passengers were stranded for eight days when an engine fire left the ship floating in the Gulf of Mexico without power, air-conditioning, or a working septic system.