County Tests Emergency Communications at First-of-Its-Kind Binational Drill

Employees from the County's Office of Emergency Services, Department of Environmental Health and Communications Office, the EPA and other agencies work with Tijuana emergency officials over Skype at the County's EOC in Kearny Mesa on Tuesday.
August 29, 2012 | 12:56pm

County emergency officials broke new ground Tuesday, taking part in a first-of-its-kind joint drill with their counterparts in Tijuana to test communications in case of a disaster near the U.S.-Mexico border.

It was a cutting edge effort to link up an American local government’s emergency operations center (EOC) with a foreign government’s EOC during a simulated catastrophe.

Months in the making, the drill was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of its Border 2020 program, which aims to improve the environment and protect the health of the nearly 12 million people living along the 2,000-mile border. Among the program’s goals is to improve emergency preparedness and responses, said Lida Tan, an EPA Border Coordinator who participated.

Tuesday’s responses were “not meant to be perfect,” Tan said. Rather, the goal was to “find issues and find a list of things to improve,” she said.

The drill was an important opportunity to test a variety of different communication platforms, said Holly Crawford, director of the County’s Office of Emergency Services. She pointed to last fall’s power outage, which wiped out Internet and phone access for many, forcing residents to rely on other means of communication.

“It’s good to explore the alternatives, traditional and non-traditional means of communication,” she said.

Most communications went smoothly on Tuesday. Officials from the County, EPA and City of San Diego touched base with their counterparts at Tijuana’s emergency services agency, called the Dirección Municipal de Protección Civil, using Skype, as well as WebEOC, a Web-based emergency program and phone. They weren’t able to make contact through satellite phone or Ham Radio, but plan to do so in the future. Language differences also created some communication challenges and County OES officials said they do not make international calls on a regular basis. Tijuana officials jokingly said the drill could have been improved if it had been held over a meal of carne asada.

But this won’t be the last drill of its kind. Tan said she hoped the EPA could sponsor another similar exercise in the future.

The event tested a specific scenario in which an employee at Rodriguez Dam in Tijuana reported finding a suspicious backpack. Mexican authorities responded and analyzed any potential threats, which they eventually ruled out. Meanwhile, the County and its partner agencies began preparing residents in the Dam’s potential spill path north of the border for a possible evacuation. If the dam were to fail, residents who live in the Tijuana River Valley area north of the border could be in danger.

The scenario wasn’t fictional. It actually took place in 1995 and would have posed a threat to communities on both sides of the border. At the time, there was no formal cross border coordination, said Nick Vent, a supervising environmental health specialist with the County’s Department of Environmental Health.

“To get information, it took 15 to 16 hours,” Vent said. “Today, it will take less than an hour.”

American officials gathered at the County’s EOC in Kearny Mesa for the drill. Meanwhile, Mexican emergency officials in Tijuana participated from their city’s EOC. In June, delegations toured each other’s facilities.

Among the local departments represented were the County’s Office of Emergency Services, Department of Environmental Health, Sheriff’s Department and Communications Office, as well as the City of San Diego’s Office of Homeland Security.