Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico —
As the warm blue waves crash onto the shore of a resort town in the Pacific Ocean, a lifeguard on duty notices a young female tourist shouting for help 50 meters away. She scrambles for a breath just before she’s pulled underwater by the forceful current. The lifeguard dons his life vest and rushes to save the drowning victim.
This situation is common-day for any lifeguard in a resort town with growing tourism and even stronger riptides, but the scenario above is much different than what a group of lifeguards and other civilian first responders experienced in Puerto Vallarta last week as part of a highly anticipated hands-on training exercise between the United States and Mexico to further develop the two nations’ water search and rescue skills.
This particular training included first responders from the neighboring Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacán, who met with U.S. Public Health Service officers in Puerto Vallarta March 20-24, 2017.
“We want to learn your current processes and build on the knowledge you already have,” said U.S. Capt. John Holland, a PHS representative introducing himself to the group of Mexican firefighters, lifeguards and other first responders. “Our goal is to discuss and practice as many different scenarios as possible to best prepare you for future rescue missions.”
Along with an enhanced skill set, Jalisco and Michoacán’s Civil Protection Agencies received specialized equipment donated by U.S. Northern Command as part of its humanitarian assistance program with the government of Mexico. The equipment, valued at $270,000, included inflatable boats with engines, rope and webbing, rescue sleds, and life vests.
“Jalisco can potentially experience many different kinds of disasters–earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, extreme flooding…,” said Luis Garcia, the regional commander of Jalisco’s Civil Protection Agency. “We are honored to be a part of this training to learn different disaster response tactics and techniques from each other.”
For the first two of the five training days, Holland and fellow PHS officer Cmdr. Kiel Fisher reviewed the roles and responsibilities of an emergency response team, how to quickly assess and classify victims in a mass casualty situation, tie rope and webbing, and improvise an anchor on shore if needed to bring a victim to safety.
“These skills are perishable,” Fisher said. “You must practice these on a regular basis or you’ll forget everything.” Fisher later explained how he keeps random-sized ropes in multiple rooms of his home to preserve his skills.
Holland and Fisher kept the days interesting by splitting the Jalisco and Michoacán first responders into different groups with each new scenario. This meant ever-changing group leaders and new group member responsibilities.
“We are trying to simulate real-world conditions,” said Fisher. “You have to be prepared to work with first responders from other units. Everyone needs to feel confident they can perform whatever duties asked of them no matter the situation.”
Days at the Beach
Day three of water search and rescue training meant something everyone was looking forward to—time to hit the beach and put classroom skills into practice.
First on the day’s agenda was how to extract a victim in the water using a rope system. Groups had to create an anchor in the sand that responders attached to a raft as they entered the water.
During this particular exercise, one team noticed it was very inconvenient to turn around to shore to communicate with other team members using hand signals, so they created their own rhythm of whistle blows to signal if they needed more or less slack in the rope.
It was clear these first responders were anything but new to the job. They quickly incorporated every new technique from Holland and Fisher to their already well-established expertise.
The last two days of training included countless life-saving skills, such as how to save a combative victim and how to turn a capsized raft right-side up.
A Partnership between U.S. and Mexico
The following day’s graduation ceremony was a sight to behold. Media reporters from all across Mexico came to highlight the incredible teamwork of the two Mexican states and the U.S.
In his keynote address, Ricardo de la Cruz, the director general of Mexico’s Civil Protection, expressed deep gratitude for USNORTHCOM’s commitment to help Mexico enhance its water search and rescue capabilities and strengthen the two nations’ relationship.
“As neighboring countries, we are likely to share the effects of natural disasters, and this friendship is important to build before those times in need,” De la Cruz said. “These men entered this week as different units, and they leave today as one team.”
Fortunately, this training is not an isolated event. It is part of a much bigger plan by USNORTHCOM’s interagency coordination specialists and the government of Mexico to train and equip Mexican units in wildlife firefighting, disaster behavioral health, water search and rescue, and urban search and rescue.
Holland and Fisher say they couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this mission, and their enthusiasm is evident in the way they teach and interact with each Mexican first responder.
USNORTHCOM and these PHS officers are supporting three more disaster response training events across Mexico in the near future as part of the continued collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico.