Preparing for an Arctic emergency with EPPR and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum

The Council’s EPPR Working Group and Arctic Coast Guard Forum are working together to make the Arctic a safer place through coordinated emergency preparedness. Their latest joint-exercise, the “Arctic Guardian Table-Top Exercise” took place in a virtual format. This is how the emergency exercise worked and its outcomes.

What would happen if a cruise ship collided with a tanker in turbulent Arctic conditions off the coast of Iceland? Luckily this is a made-up scenario, but with an increase in Arctic tourism and shipping in Northern waters, it is not so difficult to foresee this situation playing out in real life.

That is why the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group of the Arctic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum joined forces virtually to exercise a response to the scenario in a table-top format.

What are Table-Top Exercises and why are they important? How does EPPR and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum work together to prepare for emergencies? We spoke with Dan Cowan, Chair of EPPR’s Marine Environmental Response Expert Group and member of the Environmental Response Directorate for the Canadian Coast Guard about the recent joint Table-Top Exercise. The full video interview can be found at the bottom of the article.

What is a Table-Top Exercise (TTX) and why does EPPR conduct them?

A Table-Top Exercise is an emergency preparedness activity. It is a discussion-based forum that takes participants through the process of dealing with a simulated emergency scenario. Table-Top Exercises help participants learn and practice the response process.

EPPR hosts exercises regularly – it is part of our routine business. We do things from connectivity tests, notification drills, Table-Top Exercises, all the way up to live exercises. We conduct these exercises to maximize our readiness in the event that we are called to an emergency incident to respond. Table-Top Exercises provide an opportunity to test our procedures and the products we develop. They also are an excellent vehicle for capturing lessons learned in a safe environment.

Equally important, Table-Top Exercises provide an opportunity to build and strengthen the trust and relationships that are so important when it is time to manage an emergency.

What was the purpose and goal of the latest “Arctic Guardian” Table-Top Exercise?

The overarching purpose of the Arctic Guardian Table-Top Exercise was to enhance awareness and collaboration between the EPPR Arctic Council Working Group, and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. The groups came together in a Table-Top Exercise format in advance of a planned live exercise in spring 2021.

In this specific Table-Top Exercise, we sought to explore Iceland’s emergency management systems immediately following a collision between a tanker and a cruise vessel. The Table-Top Exercise tested how Arctic Council States would be notified about a collision. We also tested casualty management plans, and the transition between search and rescue and environmental response.

How does the Table-Top Exercise feed into the Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) Agreement and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (MOSPA)?

Scripting the Table-Top Exercise provided the opportunity for the policy-oriented EPPR Working Group to work much more closely with the operationally-oriented Arctic Coast Guard Forum. Mounting an effective response is made that much better when these groups work together to build relationships, learn about each other's tools and procedures, and sometimes even challenge each other's processes. It is all done with a goal of learning, and it is all done in a safe environment.

The Table-Top Exercise yielded a variety of lessons learned, including revisions to the Operational Guidelines for the MOSPA. The operational guidelines spell out exactly how countries are supposed to work together in the case of emergency response to an oil spill.

Above all, the Table-Top Exercise elevated the level of awareness and understanding related to both the MOSPA Agreement and the SAR Agreement, such that these agreements can be implemented more effectively in the case of an actual incident at sea.

The Table-Top Exercise was done in cooperation with the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. How did that cooperation work, and why is it important to do the exercise jointly?

Collaborative exercising with the Arctic Coast Guard Forum was among the most important and overarching priorities of this Table-Top Exercise. Planning and timelines were challenged repeatedly on account of the pandemic. Planning meetings that we are accustomed to holding in person all had to be shifted online, but everyone remained committed to working together and delivering on the exercise. Despite the absence of in-person planning meetings, I viewed the collaboration on both sides as exemplary. In fact, the planning team shifted and committed wholeheartedly to conducting business online, and the frequency and quality of the input increased dramatically.

How did the exercise work on an online format?

Everyone was a bit nervous about the online format. However, in retrospect, we probably achieved more with the online format than we could have reasonably hoped to achieve had we met for the same period of time, in-person. The online format allowed for a vibrant parallel chat to take place using the video conferencing tool. Participants were able to share documents online. They were able to reach out to partners to get information in real time. All of this contributed enormously to a more fruitful and engaging discussion across all the exercise participants.

The online format also permitted significantly more people to be a part of the experience. We had, for example, Arctic Council Observers and increased representation from Arctic States that might not have been possible had we been meeting in-person. While it was more effort to prepare for the online exercise, and it certainly delivered a different experience for everyone involved, I am confident that the Table-Top Exercise was a resounding success. Specifically, it highlighted our continued ability to work together, notwithstanding a global pandemic underway at the moment.

What is the outcome of this exercise?

The formal outcome of the exercise is what is called an after-action report. A team of exercise evaluators from both EPPR and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum comb through all elements of the exercise including feedback surveys to document what went well, where we might improve and areas for future exploration. We prepare after action-reports following all our exercises. However, the outcome of this exercise extends far beyond an after-action report. We have demonstrated a willingness, desire and firm commitment to continue collaborative exercising with the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

The Arctic Guardian Tabletop Exercise sets the stage for a live exercise in Iceland involving assets such as planes and vessels from Arctic Council States. The live exercise in April 2021 will pick up where the Table-Top Exercise left off. Between now and the scheduled live exercise, we are going to continue collaborating with our Arctic Coast Guard Forum colleagues. We are scheduling training, we continue to exchange information and we are starting to devote increasing time and effort towards scripting the live exercise in Spring 2021.

What was the highlight of this exercise?

What I would really like to underscore is that exercises are routine business for a lot of emergency preparedness and response organizations, but this latest exercise is an example of a milestone that is very important for both EPPR and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. These are two groups that have not exercised together in the past, and yet we share the same overarching objectives of responding to search and rescue incidences and environmental response. It only makes sense that these two groups start exercising together more. I think it is a classic case of, we are stronger together, and we look forward to continuing our path ahead in our relationship together.