Disaster training held in Stateline | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Disaster training held in Stateline

Andy Bourelle

Imagine coming to beautiful Lake Tahoe to discuss natural disasters, famine and war.

Thirty visitors have been doing that all week.

A curtain and a window were all that separated them from tourists swimming in an outdoor heated pool. While the 30 people inside the Harveys Resort Hotel/Casino conference room came from all over the West, they did not come for a pleasure visit. Looking at the snow-capped mountains and the azure 12-mile-long lake were about the only recreation they had.

They came to study and learn.

Their purpose was important: Disaster Assistance Response Team training.

The men and women were strangers, meeting each other for the first time Tuesday. They came from California, Colorado, Arizona, Alaska and even Lake Tahoe. They either work for the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. All of them had two things in common: a mastery of the incident-command system, the way agencies respond to disasters in the United States; and a desire to use their skills overseas, helping other countries during emergencies.

Now that the training is over, they may meet again someday – in Washington, D.C., Africa, Asia or even at the conflict in Kosovo.

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“They’re being taught the international part, the international arena. Everyone there already has a good understanding of the incident-command system, but they don’t know how to work internationally,” said Ed Gee, deputy forest supervisor of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “The money is different, the culture. (When overseas) you are dealing with people who are being shot at. You’re seeing humans at their worst.”

Lake Tahoe was chosen as the host location for the training seminar because of Gee’s connections in Washington. Having done this sort of work before, taking three trips to Bosnia, Gee said the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit would be happy to host the seminar.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance are holding four DART trainings this year throughout the country. The Lake Tahoe seminar was the third.

After the training, the men and women are returning to their jobs. However, the potential for being assigned to disasters is there. They likely will go to the operations center in Washington a few times before an international assignment comes up. Depending on how long the crisis in Kosovo continues, some of them could end up helping to provide aid there. Four of the people trained in the January seminar now are in Washington, helping to coordinate relief efforts in Albania and Macedonia.

In the past, DARTs have gone to Bosnia, Somalia and the Sahara Desert. They have responded to droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes and infestations of locusts. Last year, several DARTs responded to the catastrophic wildfires in Mexico and the areas ravaged by Hurricane Mitch.

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There were 120 people chosen for training this year; 300 applied. They all bring different skills to the program: fluency in other languages, firefighting experience, expertise in logistics and more.

Forest Service employee Alan Gallegos from Clovis, Calif., trained this week. He wants the opportunity to work in an environment threatened by landslides.

“I work on a burn area rehab team, and I’ve been doing that for about 12 years now. I work as a geologist assessing landslide hazard. It just seems kind of logical to take that knowledge from a state or local level to an international level,” Gallegos said. “I would like to go into an area that may have had a hurricane, possibly with a lot of danger of landslides. I can assist in identifying the hazards. That’s my goal.”

Bill Kuntz, a recreation planner from Susanville, Calif., also is looking forward to an opportunity to help.

“I’ve known some people over the years who have done it and gotten quite a bit out of it. I hope to get some assignments in disaster areas. I’ve worked a lot in aviation and with helicopters. I’m familiar with those types of operations, and I can help in those situations,” Kuntz said. “What’s going on in Kosovo is a good example of how this agency can help in disaster relief and make a big difference in saving several thousand lives – hundreds of thousands of lives. That’s why I’m here.”

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In 1985 Mexico City was shaken by a powerful earthquake, and the United States helped with relief. The United States also helped in the Armenian earthquake in 1988. However, in both cases, there was little – or no – coordination between different governments. There also was a lack of communication between United States agencies. No one knew what anyone else was doing.

After the 1988 relief effort, a report was completed analyzing what had happened. The DART program stemmed from that. Now DARTs are a standard part of foreign disasters.

DARTs don’t go in and take over relief efforts. They assist the governments they are visiting.

The teams provide rapid response to disasters. In addition to giving aid, they assess the effectiveness of their actions and make recommendations to the federal government on how better to help.

However, trainees have to learn more than that. DART members have to know how to get out of the country “if everything goes to hell in a hand basket,” Gee said.

“We don’t carry guns. We work for the U.S. government, but we are not the Army,” Gee added. “We are there to help provide food, shelter and water.”

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Training ended Thursday, and the newly trained DART members have left behind the map-adorned walls, slide shows and hours of discussing what to do. They know what to do.

The real work is yet to begin.

“For me,” Gee said of his overseas experiences, “it was one of the greatest adventures I ever could have hoped to embark on.”

Armed with their red-jacketed Field Operations Guides – “literally the Bible for international disaster response” – the DART members are ready for the next step: an assignment.

“I’m very interested in taking what skills I have and applying them overseas,” said Allen Edmonds, a BLM worker from Montana. “I believe, as a world community, we need to provide that assistance when it’s needed.”

One thing is for sure: Assistance will be needed.

“No matter what, disasters will continue to occur internationally,” Gee said.

If the conflict in Kosovo isn’t resolved soon, that could be their first assignment.

“Every time you turn on the news, you hear about Kosovo,” Gee said. “(The United States) already has people going in there. Possibly some of these folks will be going. But we have to provide that aid. … We always said we wouldn’t tolerate another Holocaust. There’s a Holocaust going on right now.”

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