PODGORICA, Montenegro - Seven members of the Maine Army National Guard traveled to Podgorica in November to train alongside Montenegrins during an emergency management preparedness exercise.
These Soldiers served as observers, selected for their experience and knowledge in training, general operations, and emergency operations, assisting and evaluating over 15 different agencies, departments and ministries in the country's first inter-ministerial emergency disaster exercise.
"For us, this validates our own knowledge and experience with incident command and responding to Maine disasters," said Sgt. 1st Class John Knobloch, the disaster management operator who organized the exercise with Montenegrin input and support from the Civil Military Emergency Preparedness Program.
"At the same time, we are getting a unique look at preparedness. When we review how other people do something, as we help them plan their procedures and review best practices we may identify shortcomings we have ourselves. We find we see things a little differently. Many folks who come here, or travel internationally go back and have a renewed motivation to look at their own plans and refine them."
The exercise featured a devastating earthquake in the Boca Bay, a popular tourist destination along Montenegro's coastline. It tested the ability of the Ministry of Interior to respond, control and manage over 40 situations that called for communications breakdowns, flooding, evacuations, civilian chaos and the need for medical and search and rescue response.
"We can imagine this happening here," said Lt. Col. Igor Knezevic. "We have a history of terrible earthquakes. The last one was in 1979 and left over 100 casualties, and hundreds of thousands homeless, and entire towns devastated. We cannot forget this recent past, and we want to be ready in the case of a possible future earthquake."
Knezevic, the operations officer for Armed Forces of Montenegro, remembers the destruction of the 1979 earthquake and knows that it could happen again.
"Earthquakes can come in at any time, and they happen without any kind of warning signs," he said. "This region is susceptible to earthquakes. In July, we had several minor, small earthquakes here in Podgorica. Albania has also had earthquakes this past year, and last year hundreds of people died in an earthquake in Italy. That could have happened here."
This exercise put the emphasis on civilian leadership for disaster management, a shift that Knobloch said is happening internationally. While Knezevic was present and ready and able to provide military support, his mission was to wait for direction from the incident commander, the Ministry of the Interior.
"We have been working for a few years, incorporating our Defense Support Civilian Authority mission," he said. "Ten years ago, we were the response, but now we are the support. The experience we get here and in Maine is precious to us. It shows us a wider picture and gives us some ideas of other ways we can work together to reach a common goal. Sharing information is very important."
In addition to physical similarities between Montenegro and Maine, there are political similarities. The different ministries are akin to our different departments and agencies in how they work together. If they are unable to communicate, there are additional challenges that are thrown in the way and can distract from the goal of trying to save lives in a disaster, said Knoblach.
Being able to work together and communicate amongst one another helps them find their own ways to overcome challenges and be better positioned to protect their own population.
Among other initiatives, disaster preparedness has remained a top priority for Montenegro since officially declaring independence. They began working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's CMEP program almost immediately, according to Diane Accurio, program manager for Interagency and International Support for the region.
A few years later, the Maine National Guard sent Knoblach to start working the same project as part of the state's partnership program initiatives.
"We sat down with them multiple times throughout the last two years as the principal agencies were challenged to create an upcoming exercise," said Knoblach. "They followed a planning conference framework to develop the plan, and we are taking on a more observing role to witness their very first exercise that is inter-ministerial, where one ministry, the Ministry of the Interior is the lead agency, and will remain the lead agency throughout the entire event."
Both Acurio and Knoblach focus on connecting subject matter experts between the two countries to develop capabilities with the mission of making disaster response the responsibility of the civilian authorities.
Maine hosted select individuals from Montenegro to come to Maine and work directly with such agencies. Most recently they worked with the Maine National Guard Emergency Operations Center, the local Maine Emergency Operations Center, and a regional center that Knezevic attended.