As a member of the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA), the Ecuadorian Air Force (FAE) received immediate responses to its request for assistance just hours after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the Andean nation on April 16th , killing 650 and injuring more than 16,000.
Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay were the first to respond to FAE’s request by providing airlifts, food supplies, and personnel to carry out rescues. The Ecuadorian government specifically requested partner nations provide aircraft and rescue personnel to transport Military members, food and medical supplies to the areas most affected by the earthquake, FAE Colonel Mauricio Proaño, Ecuador’s Liaison Officer to SICOFAA, told Diálogo .
In the hours and days that followed, SICOFAA nations such as Mexico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Canada, and Panama arrived in Ecuador to provide assistance and aid. Ecuador’s operations center oversaw the relief effort, as mandated by SICOFAA’s protocols.
“We received the aid solicitation at the SICOFAA Permanent Secretariat (SPS) from the Ecuadorian Liaison Officer very early on [April 17th] and immediately disseminated it through the appropriate channels to the other Air Forces that are part of the organization,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Alberto Moreno, SICOFAA’s General Secretary, told Diálogo . “The members of SICOFAA know that the first 72 hours are vital in these types of tragedies. They acted quickly, following the established protocols.”
While providing assistance to Ecuador, SICOFAA accomplished “exactly what is laid out in our doctrine and what we have been practicing over the years with both real and virtual exercises,” Col. Moreno added. “Of course, we would have preferred that this tragedy didn't happen. But since Ecuador had the courage and the confidence to ask for SICOFAA’s help, we had the opportunity to use what we have learned during training and from other tragedies – like the earthquakes in Chile, Peru, and Haiti.”
Col. Moreno remembers when the first support arrived in Haiti after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 230,000 struck in January 2010. “The aid began accumulating in the capital’s airport, and it was difficult to know exactly what the aid consisted of. It became chaos. After that experience, SICOFAA created an aid request booklet that the requesting country must fill out and send to the SPS. This way, we know exactly what the country requires and can, thus, be more efficient.”
These lessons also allowed SICOFAA to work on other aspects of humanitarian assistance operations. For example, Spanish was the language used to communicate during the earthquake in Ecuador. Every country’s Air Force that arrived on the scene used the same communications system and software to coordinate their efforts.
“In this case, we utilized that of Argentina with the same doctrine we have practiced in four exercises,” Col. Moreno stated. “All these years of experience have helped us to work on a legal framework for these operations. For example, knowing what to do if one of the airplanes that is providing assistance is in a situation that involves civilian deaths, or smaller details, like who bears the costs associated with fuel. All this allows us to operate with greater precision.”
Training leads to success
Created in 1961, SICOFAA is an apolitical organization comprising 20 members that are represented by officers from the Air Forces of countries throughout the Americas. The organization’s members include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Paraguayan Air Force Colonel Gustavo Schreiber, who is SICOFAA’s deputy director, attributed the mission’s success in Ecuador in part to SICOFAA’s recent exercises in Argentina. “We finished a virtual exercise in Mendoza, Argentina, on April 15th, and the earthquake in Ecuador happened the following day. The procedures were fresh in our minds.”
During their training exercises, SICOFAA also trains with the countries’ humanitarian aid agencies. “In general, we work with civil defense units or firefighters and train with them on such scenarios as aeromedical evacuations and combating forest fires, among others,” Col. Schreiber stated.
SICOFAA’s success in having member countries provide relief to the region has transcended borders. “We were invited by commanders of air forces in Africa to hold a presentation about our work,” Col. Moreno explained. “They are very enthusiastic and have announced that they are going to replicate our program on their continent. Something similar is also happening with countries in the Pacific, as they also invited us to present on the SICOFAA program in Hawaii.”
Aid to Ecuador
The region’s air forces responded to Ecuador’s request by bringing foodstuffs, medicine, and airplanes.
For example, in addition to humanitarian aid food supplies provided by its government, the Colombian Air Force made a C-40 "B-737" plane with 70 passengers available to the FAE under SICOFAA’s framework. Among the passengers were firefighters, two expert geologists, and risk management personnel. Colombia also provided three UH-60 helicopters to serve as shuttles among Manta, Portoviejo, Jama, and their surrounding communities, as well as a “King Air” aerial ambulance with 15 crew members and a B-3502 medevac aircraft with its own crew.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrived in Ecuador or April 23rd to deliver the 1,000 rations of food and blankets aboard his presidential plane. A few days later, the presidents of Peru and Bolivia arrived in Ecuador to show their solidarity with the country.
Panama sent Ecuador six rescue units – four from the Civil Protection System, one made up of firefighters, and another consisting of 34 rescue workers from Panama’s National Air and Naval Service.
On April 19th, a C-130 plane from the Uruguayan Air Force (FAU, for its Spanish acronym) reached Ecuador with 10 crew members to transport passengers and humanitarian aid. The FAU also sent a helicopter that could be used for nine days.
On April 20th, 38 rescue workers arrived from the Dominican Republic, while Brazil also sent a C-130 plane that same day. The Brazilian mission’s goal was to provide medicine, vaccines, and hospital equipment. The Brazilians planned to stay in Ecuador for nine days to transport food supplies between Quito and Manta.
Peru sent an enormous amount of aid, including a C-27 plane, which could be used for up to a month, and three MI-17 helicopters to serve as shuttles for isolated communities. Peru also sent support to Ecuador through maritime channels.
A C-130 aircraft from the Argentine Air Force with a 26-person crew also landed on April 20th. Meanwhile, Honduras offered to send a CH-47 medevac helicopter and a Boeing 737-200 airplane that Ecuador could use for a month.
The Bolivian Air Force (FAB, for its Spanish acronym) sent a Hercules C-130 along with 3,000 liters of water, a half-ton of medicine, and 50 search and rescue (SAR) specialists from the SAR-FAB group, which deployed a canine unit trained to search for survivors.
El Salvador sent a group of 25 rescue workers from the National Department of Firefighters, the Police, the Red Cross, and three other units of emergency response personnel.
Chile sent 49 specialists from the Firefighter Department's SAR Unit to help Ecuador, in addition to providing six tons of equipment needed to search for victims trapped underneath the rubble. Canada confirmed it would dispatch a CC-144 plane that would be at the Ecuadorian government’s disposal.
Lessons learned in Ecuador
As it has done before following previous natural disasters, SICOFAA will continue to have a channel its members can use to discuss among themselves what went well and how procedures can be improved for future operations. “We are going to receive a report from Ecuador’s Air Force that discusses the lessons learned here,” Col. Moreno said.
“Basically, [it will] say how many resources [we required] and how much time we will need them for,” Col. Proaño said. “To give an example, if I would like to borrow a plane for 20 days, but the lending country tells me ‘we can’t give it to you for 20 days; only for 10, 15, or eight days. That’s a limitation. We ought to have known what these limitations on requesting resources were.”