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Lessons from the Fukushima Response

News reports about how the United States interacts with other governments usually focus on the contentious issues, such as the controversy sparked by Edward Snowden over how the U.S. spied even on allies. It’s easy to forget how often the United States comes to the aid of other countries, as it did when it helped Japan during the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

A recent government-sponsored workshop looked at lessons from such events and how to improve the United States’ capability to respond to any future international chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives (CBRNE) events.

Communication is the key to success. One aspect of that is getting the country to communicate specific needs, which is not easy in the chaos that the crisis creates. But a government can’t just say “send help,” said Brian Lewis, with the State Department, who is responsible for coordinating the U.S. response to CBRNE events overseas. Once the United States understands the nature of the need, its various agencies can determine which capabilities are the best to deploy for meeting those specific needs, he said.

Col. Patrick Terrell, WMD military advisor and deputy director for CBRN defense policy in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Combating WMD, noted that the U.S. agencies need to get better at sharing information not only with the representatives of the country being assisted but also among all of the government agencies providing assistance, because a lack of communication can lead to duplication of efforts. He noted that in the case of Fukushima, they had 17 agencies on multiple conference calls for hours at a time and “still not everybody knew everything.”

Communicating with the public is also critical. “Information is just as important as food, water, or shelter in a disaster,” said Brent Woodworth, president and CEO of Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Foundation. Fortunately, new software tools, such as an open-source platform called Sahana, are facilitating crowdsourcing and making it easier to share critical information with the public to, for example, help them locate missing family members and find where to go for assistance.

Another lesson was the advantage of leveraging local resources to minimize the need to deploy personnel and resources over far distances, said Charles Donnell, vice president of disaster services planning and doctrine at the American Red Cross. He is called in to coordinate responses when incidents occur. He noted the importance of nurturing community readiness before any incident, of building on existing local capabilities, and of facilitating decision-making at the lowest level during an incident.

Woodworth also highlighted the need for cultural sensitivity, and he noted that he works with a team of experts to design programs customized to the unique cultural and social elements of each country when providing assistance such as trauma counseling.

Most important, perhaps, is that responders have to be mindful of the fact that they are not in charge of the event—that role belongs to the country where the incident has occurred.