U.S.-China Cooperation on Disaster Management Training
September 23, 2015
Two-man search teams enter a darkened classroom to look for survivors. They work in pairs, systematically exploring the jumble of overturned desks and chairs. In a corner of the room, Dominic Marzano and Wilson Lee are watching closely. Minutes earlier, the two trainers had given their instructions. “Please keep in mind that safety always comes first,” Marzano told them. “Never work alone,” added Lee. “Always have a buddy with you.” The tension is high, even though this is just a simulation – a group exercise for 50 Chinese participants conducted by a six-member team from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They have gathered here in Chengdu, in southwestern Sichuan Province, for an intensive, eight-day trainers’ workshop less than 100 kilometers from the epicenter of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Disaster management has been an area of growing cooperation between the United States and China. This training, with funding from USAID and Chinese partners, was highlighted during the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington DC in June, the seventh round of these bilateral talks. Since 2006, The Asia Foundation has worked with Chinese partners from both governmental and non-governmental institutions who believe that a swift government response to disasters is not enough, and that training citizens in thousands of local communities to cope with emergencies is essential to making the country more resilient.
There has been renewed focus on U.S.-China relations ahead of President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States this week. Last year marked the 35th anniversary of the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two countries. The world’s two largest economies have become increasingly intertwined, with annual trade exceeding $550 billion last year. But recent tensions over issues ranging from cyberattacks to the South China Sea have clouded the current climate. Xi’s visit will be an opportunity to reset the course of relations between the two countries and find areas for practical cooperation.
China and the U.S. face similar challenges in disaster management – large populations, a diverse geographic landscape, and a range of potential natural and man-made disasters. Working together on disaster preparedness and risk reduction has provided the two countries with common ground for collaboration. The recent training in August focused on FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, which is designed to prepare ordinary members of the community to help themselves and others during the early stages of a catastrophic disaster, when professional emergency services personnel may be overwhelmed. The CERT concept was first developed by the Los Angeles Fire Department, and later expanded by FEMA into a nationwide preparedness initiative in the United States.
Most of the Chinese participants are professional responders from the National Earthquake Response Support Service and emergency management agencies in Chengdu City and Shaanxi Province. The newly trained group will now become “master trainers” who can deliver the CERT program and support community-based disaster management activities in the project’s pilot communities. In addition to basic CERT training, the FEMA trainers introduced them to more efficient teaching techniques, and shared lessons learned from conducting CERT programs in American communities. The Chinese master trainers also shared thoughts on tailoring CERT for the Chinese context, including resources they could tap into and challenges confronting them.
The training concluded with a simulated disaster scenario where participants could demonstrate their new skills under the watchful eyes of their FEMA instructors. At the end of the simulation, with all the injured victims treated and safely evacuated, trainer Marzano gave his assessment. “There is still some room for improvement, but your performance impressed me,” he said. “Well done!” The new master trainers were enthusiastic: “Eight days is too short for us. We invite FEMA’s instructors to visit our province. How about at the end of this year?” proposed one middle-aged official from Shaanxi Province at the closing session.
Both Chengdu City and Shaanxi Province are expected to roll out their own local experiments with CERT very soon. The hope is that this training will plant seeds for an ongoing program to prepare communities to respond when disaster strikes. The U.S. trainers praised the new Chinese master trainers, and pledged to return during the next stage of implementation in the pilot communities, a valuable opportunity for both sides to learn from each other. By working to create a solid foundation in disaster management skills, emergency management practitioners from the United States and China are finding new ways to cooperate and collaborate.
Hao Shanli is a program associate in The Asia Foundation’s Community Development Program in China. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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