Joint Humanitarian Operations Course Helps Build Connections Before a Disaster Strikes
Hurricanes, floods, volcano eruptions and other disasters do not wait for humans to get up to speed.

STUTTGART, Germany, May 25, 2012 — Hurricanes, floods, volcano eruptions and other disasters do not wait for humans to get up to speed.

The Joint Humanitarian Operations Course (JHOC) is designed to get ahead of disasters. In the two-day course, U.S. military and government civilians who are likely to help coordinate future humanitarian assistance learn about the overall process and build valuable connections. During the latest JHOC, May 22-23, 2012, about 35 staff members throughout U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command gathered for presentations, discussion and case studies at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany.

The course was run by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), USAID's arm that responds to disasters abroad, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Of the 70-some foreign disasters that OFDA responds to each year, the Department of Defense (DOD) has a role in about 10 percent, said Angela Sherbenou, OFDA senior humanitarian advisor and civilian/military advisor to U.S. Africa Command. The course was led by Sherbenou and Dana Chivers, OFDA senior humanitarian advisor and civilian/military advisor to U.S. European Command.

The course has two main components. "One is the actual academic learning objectives, sharing information, dispelling myths and talking about best practices versus other. That's one," explained Chivers. "And the other one, just as important, is building these personal relationships, so that they know who we are, who to reach out to.

"The ultimate goal is that we have two parts of one government that will trust each other, that will trust each other's professional judgment and that will work together cooperatively," Chivers said.

OFDA has many resources to tap into in responding to disasters abroad. The office can offer funding; provide supplies, such as blankets and plastic sheeting for shelter; assign personnel to advise, assess or otherwise assist; and request more support or assets from other agencies.

When requested, DOD can support civilian relief agencies. The U.S. military enters the picture during a U.S. response to a foreign disaster only when the civilian response is overwhelmed and the military can provide a unique service. One of the most common examples is the transportation of supplies and people, especially during the early onset of a disaster.

Since U.S. Africa Command was created in 2007, it has assisted OFDA with a foreign disaster response once, Sherbenou said. During the turmoil in Libya last year, refugees fled to nearby Tunisia. OFDA requested help in delivering humanitarian aid supplies, and U.S. Air Forces Africa responded. Air Force aircraft out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany, picked up 4,000 blankets, 40 rolls of plastic sheeting and 9,600 10-liter water containers to deliver to Tunisia. (Read more: AFRICOM Supports U.S. and International Response to Libya Crisis)

When an earthquake or other event occurs, a certain process must be followed. For example, a disaster can be declared by a U.S. ambassador or designee or the assistant secretary of state for the region. The JHOC is set up to clarify who does what during such a chaotic time.

"The best way to explain that process is with the personal relationship in a course prior to a disaster, so that the commanders can have the best information and a plan in order to support USAID," said Sherbenou.

An unfortunate case of misinformation can turn serious in the middle of a disaster.

"You don't have time for that," said Jack Myers, principal regional advisor for USAID/OFDA. "OK, we're not necessarily being shot at like you would be in a war situation, but lives are being lost. You have to move fast. The more we understand each other, the more efficient we can be."

Disasters are categorized into three types: rapid onset, such as an earthquake; slow onset, such as a drought; and complex emergencies (CE), which have an element of conflict. Many of the major CE responses occur in Africa. In 2011, ODFA responded to CE foreign disasters in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, DRC, and Libya, among other countries.

U.S. Marine Major Carrie Howe recently returned from the UN Mission in South Sudan. She said she found the tools and resources invaluable and "absolutely" would be able to use the resources and greater understanding of OFDA at another combatant command or when she returns to the fleet Marine force.

"This is something that you can apply across the board," said Howe.

The two-day JHOC course is generally offered twice at year at each geographic command and once a year at the component commands, such as U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa. It has also been presented to functional commands, such as U.S. Transportation Command; schools; and units. Since the first JHOC in 2004, the ODFA staff has presented more than 300 courses to more than 10,000 participants.

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