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All hands on deck for Casco Bay Disaster Response Planning Exercise

The Casco Bay Emergency Response Group (CBERG) was created in 2016 to handle large emergencies in and around Casco Bay. The participating municipalities in CBERG are Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, South Portland, Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth, Long Island, Cumberland, Yarmouth, North Yarmouth, Freeport, Brunswick, Harpswell, West Bath and Phippsburg. The overall goal of the exercise in September was to incorporate the use of the Incident Command System (ICS) for all large-scale marine responses.

Emergency crews and Casco Bay Lines crew load "injured" volunteers aboard rescue boats.

Put simply, our municipalities agreed to use the Incident Command System to standardize disaster responses along commonly understood roles, duties and terminology. For example, the Fire Chief acting as the Incident Commander (IC) in Westbrook has the same duties and responsibilities as the Police Chief acting as the Incident Commander in Scarborough.

Both disasters may have very different goals but the duties and responsibilities associated with each title (Command, Operations, Planning, Finance, Logistics, etc.) will be the same.

In past disasters many vessels in distress have been assisted by local fishermen who were in the area and were willing to lend a hand to prevent loss of life at sea. It is well-known that professional fishermen are on the water year-round and are always willing to help mariners in distress.

After disaster exercises with a maritime focus it was observed that local fishermen were noticeably absent in the planning and execution of those exercises. The CBERG planning committee decided it was time bring local fishermen into the exercise planning process.

Three Card Monte was designed to test the ability of municipalities, state agencies (Maine Marine Patrol) and federal agencies (U.S. Coast Guard) to work together toward a common goal. The Three Card Monte title represents the confusion of adding in multiple other responders to the exercise.

Historically, people evacuated from sinking passenger vessels were frequently brought to the nearest dock and dropped off so the assisting mariner can go back to get more people off the sinking boat. This makes sense if there are only one or two boats on scene and the disabled vessel is rapidly sinking.

"Badly injured" volunteers are outfitter with lifejackets by Casco Bay Lines crew before being removed from the "damaged" vessel.

However, this method can quickly get out of hand if there are 8 or 10 boats all bringing people to different docks. This can cause significant confusion. The need for accountability quickly becomes apparent when everyone is off the disabled vessel, but only half of them are accounted for because they are scattered across the harbor on random docks.

To address this “accountability chaos” CBERG asked the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) to advise on the direction of exercise a whole and on exercise plan development. We also asked if any members would be willing to play the role of a mariner from “away” who wanted to help. The MLA members would be considered “Trusted Agents” who know the plan and are willing to test the abilities of the Incident Command’s designated On Scene Coordinator (OSC) whose duties include keeping track of where all the injured people being evacuated were being taken. For this exercise four boats were to be selected to take their injured person(s) to either Peaks Island, Long Island, Great Diamond or Little Diamond Islands. They were then asked to wait there for 10 minutes then call in over the primary communications channel and state, “This is mariner 1. We are at (one of the islands) but there are no ambulances here…what do you want me to do?” The On Scene Coordinator would then re-direct the rescue boats to the planned staging area.

Which brings us to exercise day. The weather was heavy overcast with chances of rain, calm winds and seas around 1 foot at the harbor entrance, the perfect day for a disaster exercise. Throughout the morning we conducted the exercise briefs and made preparations to get all of our actors onto the Casco Bay Lines (CBL) ferry Aucocisco III. The CBL Operations Manager, along with the captain and crew graciously volunteered their time and vessel to the exercise.

Cape Elizabeth WET Team was one of the many participating response teams.

At 11:40 all of the actors were on board and heading out to Hussey Sound in the vicinity of Pumpkin Nob. Local emergency response crews stood by for the exercise to start around 12:15 when the ferry would simulate striking a submerged object and call out Mayday on Channel 81a, our designated primary communications channel. The exercise kicked off without a hitch and the local emergency responders began to make their way to the sinking ferry. The US Coast Guard began to make their call outs to the ferry and collect the necessary information to help render assistance while the USCG 47-foot motor Life Boat launched to perform the role of On Scene Coordinator. Once on scene, the US Coast Guard assumed command of the incident from Maine Marine Patrol while local fire departments retained control of the patient transfer to shore. As fate would have it, shortly after the passenger transfer had begun a real boat fire was reported near Tookie’s Bridge in Portland. After a short delay, the 14 passengers who had been removed from the disabled vessel on Stokes basket litters (to simulate severe injury) were returned to the Portland Ocean Terminal for an informal debrief.

While the participants did not get a chance to perform a “people in the water” search, the exercise was deemed a huge success. In all, 26 federal, state and local agencies, plus the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, worked nearly seamlessly to make this first-of-its-kind Maritime Emergency Exercise a success. Participants were able to assist with the removal of 14 “severely injured” people from a sinking vessel and they did it in record time. Looking back, I believe the best thing that came from the exercise was establishing the relationships that are crucial to success in emergencies of this type.

People can trust that local, state and federal responders as well as professional mariners like Maine lobstermen will be there when they are in trouble, there is no land in sight, and the seas are building.


Help arrives from the South Portland Emergency crew



Loading injured folks aboard the Long Island Fire Department vessel.



Radioing for new instructions.



Multiple municipalities responded to the "emergency" in Casco Bay involving a ferry "taking on water".



Injured people included volunteers who were strapped in and given special attention



A successful exercise!



Scarborough Fore Department arrives



The exercise was cut short when an actual boat fire broke out in Portland.


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