Members of the Canadian Coast Guard deliver medical supplies to a treatment facility in Kotzebue, Alaska. Operation Arctic Chinook includes multiple federal local and international agencies. (Photo: Meredith Manning, US Coast Guard/ Defense Video Imagery Distribution System )
Members of the Canadian Coast Guard deliver medical supplies to a treatment facility in Kotzebue, Alaska. Operation Arctic Chinook includes multiple federal local and international agencies. (Photo: Meredith Manning, US Coast Guard/ Defense Video Imagery Distribution System )

Mass Exercise Tests Emergency Response in the Arctic  


As a luxury cruise ship with 1600 passengers and crewmembers is about to sail through the Northwest Passage, a multiagency search and rescue field operation takes place in Alaska.

Operation Arctic Chinook started on Tuesday last week and consists of an adventure-class ship traveling through the Bering Strait with 250 passengers and crew. The ship experiences an incident that degrades to becoming a catastrophic event, according to a United States Coast Guard News Release.

The scenario began southwest of Kotzebue, where the incident had caused a majority of the passengers to abandon the ship in in life rafts, while some personnel stayed on board to fight fires. The passengers were evacuated to shore, to the Kotzebue Long Range Radar Site and Tin City, where local authorities, rescuers and medical personnel had their efforts tested. This exercise is the first of its kind in Alaska.

Arctic Chinook SAR FSX Map. (Credit: US Coast Guard)

Arctic Chinook SAR FSX Map. (Credit: US Coast Guard)

A test of local, state and federal emergency response

The purpose of the exercise is to conduct a live field training with multiple agencies, including the US Coast Guard, the US Army, the National Guard, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Homeland Security, the US Weather Service and Canadian units. According to the US Coast Guard, the exercise represents a unified effort by the Coast Guard and its Alaskan Command partners to understand, anticipate and prepare for the challenges of a mass maritime rescue operation in the Arctic. It featured several types of rescue helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to conduct rescue, patient movement and medical evacuation efforts. The Coast Guard will also be testing new SAR technology such as the Next Generation Incident Command System (NICS) and new radio and Internet communication systems for Arctic rescue operations.


Not an implausible scenario

Although this is a mock accident, an emergency like this in the Arctic is not implausible. Melting sea ice is making way for increase maritime traffic and human activity in the Arctic, but the lack of infrastructure and the remoteness causes significant challenges for search and rescue operations.  Only days before the Arctic Chinook exercise started the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity set sail from Seward, Alaska for a month long journey through the Northwest Passage. Experts have raised concerns both over the environmental impacts of such cruise ships and the preparedness of the Canadian and US Coast Guards to handle a possible disaster in the area.  

Multinational response exercise

Arctic Chinook is a part of the US Department of State-approved list of Arctic Council Chairmanship events and exercises elements of the Aeronautical and Search and Rescue Agreement signed by all eight Arctic nations in 2011. Observers from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Russia have been present during the exercise in order to increase cooperation and understanding in the region. The US special representative to the Arctic, Adm. Robert Papp, was in Alaska last week to observe the drill and said in a speech to Alaska Dispatch News that Arctic shipping safety is a big concern within the US government and internationally.  

Commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, Rear Adm. Michael F. McAllister, said in a USCG news release that “this exercise was really about us learning how to best respond to a mass rescue operation and how to work together both locally and internationally, so we can be prepared for what is likely to be an increase in activity in the Arctic.”


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