Crisis Response When the Status Quo Is a Crisis

1103212 (1)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on security and law enforcement during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief scenarios. You can read the first article here


If the 2016 earthquake in Italy repeated today, how would the country respond while being on lockdown? If a hurricane like Irma, Maria, or Dorian hit the Caribbean now, what regional and international partners could even respond to help? If a storm like Sandy hit the United States right now, how overwhelmed would New York and New Jersey be? As the world experiences a global pandemic in the form of the novel coronavirus, the focus of most governments has understandably been on the health implications of this virus, and on the economic fallout of the lockdowns and other mitigation measures taken to stop its spread. But there are two major issues whose careful consideration becomes more necessary by the day: security matters and natural disasters. Criminals are likely to capitalize on new opportunities created by the dramatic change in the status quo. The same is true of terrorist organizations, with regard to both financing and attacks. Yet how much are security forces able to operate or react at the moment? And even beyond these security concerns, natural disasters may be a bigger threat to exceeding current capacity. Hurricanes, cyclones, and tornadoes will hit, earthquakes will strike, and volcanoes will erupt, pandemic or no pandemic. Now immersed in an indefinite global health crisis, every leader has to answer this question: If the status quo is a pervasive disaster, how can we cope with incidental or episodic emergencies? Few states, if any, are ready for the challenge.



The biggest, wealthiest states often struggle with managing a single catastrophic event. Multiple simultaneous emergencies can push even the best-organized response mechanisms past the breaking point. The United States’ consecutive responses to Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in the Virgin Islands and Florida, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands again indicated that more work needed to be done on that front, but the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has put this challenge into high relief. Around the world, states are realizing the importance of being prepared to respond to several different types of emergencies at once, each with limited resources available for the effort. Given the urgency of the situation, states must carefully examine what tools they have to address security and law enforcement issues, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief amid the current pandemic and future public health crises. Some tools they may not recognize they already have, and others they may need to create.

Virtual Interagency Cell

At the national level, states have to balance maintaining essential services while trying to keep as many people at home as possible. Different states are handling this differently. Some have sought rotations within government agencies, others have sought to have as many teleworkers as possible, and other still have deemed only certain agencies — sometimes just the military — as “essential” during the pandemic. The problem in many cases, however, is that the health-focused rules may make sense on an agency-by-agency basis, but do not take into consideration the interagency requirements for handling neither disaster response nor security incidents. To function efficiently and transparently in any context, there needs to be some sort of formalized, repeatable, documentable process to ensure that information gets to senior decision-makers in a timely fashion. But many approaches to cooperation, collaboration, and even information-sharing, which have been implemented in different countries, are simply not possible when some agencies are closed and most are working from home. While there is no “best” practice in place yet, some functional models, such as the United States’ Maritime Operational Threat Response Process (managed by the Global Maritime Operational Threat Response Coordination Center), indicate that interagency cells can work virtually. That mechanism — triggered by an attempted Soviet defection onto a Coast Guard vessel, improved after 9/11, and enhanced over decades — has well-defined protocols for getting all the agencies needed to address a given situation onto a phone call so that information can be shared effectively, and decisions can be made quickly. By practicing the process regularly, there are clear procedures for establishing the lead agency and determining how to address the type of situation as efficiently as possible.

Though the best time to organize a “virtual interagency cell” would be before a pandemic, they can also be established ad hoc. That said, there has to be some structure to them, as they must fulfill the need for responding appropriately to security situations and disasters in the modified working environment. This means that, in addition to being repeatable and documentable such that they provide timely information to decision-makers, they also need to be extremely clear on authorities and jurisdiction. The individual who is “on call” for any agency within the virtual cell must be prepared to get on the phone with people from other agencies and make decisions on behalf of their agency on the spot. This is difficult in some cases, so there has to be a rapid, implementable process for seeking more senior input on matters that require it. Whether at the office, at home, or at the beach, the right people have to be able to immediately communicate with each other and resolve any sort of interagency consideration. The whole point of the virtual cell, however it is established, is to make sure that the fully operational agencies are not diminished in their effectiveness when other agencies are working at less-than-full operational status. States should test out the operation of these virtual cells before relying on them, and international partners may be helpful in that process.

Multinational Regional Response Teams

As has been said in Morocco, whose border with Algeria has been closed for decades, a closed border is “only closed for legal things.” Even with borders closed all over the world on account of a pandemic, transnational crime will always continue. And yet, when it comes to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, transnational response is often crucial. Therefore, one approach that states could take is to establish multinational regional response teams. These teams would include officials from across the region or sub-region, each endowed, by virtue of their respective positions, with crucial national-level authority. With regularly reviewed health protocols involving testing, quarantining, isolation, and other protective measures, these teams could then cooperate on cross-border and transnational security, law enforcement, and disaster response matters. Since normal movement is not possible or safe for health reasons, the multinational regional response teams could streamline international cooperation by already being together.

In some cases, this can build on or enhance existing regional cooperation. For example, as mentioned in Part I, the Yaoundé Architecture for Maritime Security in West and Central Africa has established a cascading set of mechanisms for inter-regional, regional, and zonal cooperation. That architecture was recently put to the test in May 2020 in a piracy case where a fishing trawler was pirated off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire, and, with 18 hostages onboard, was taken across Ghana, Togo, and Benin, and into Nigeria’s exclusive economic zone. The navies of those states worked together through the Yaoundé architecture to track the vessel, share information, and ultimately help set up a successful interdiction by the Nigerian Navy. Pre-established multinational coordination centers, like that of Zone E, on whose watch that interdiction occurred, demonstrate the potential value that such regional response teams could have. The sooner they are established, the greater chance for success they will have.

Health Protocols for Shiprider Agreements, Status of Forces Agreements, and Other Cooperative Agreements

As Part I argued, there is tremendous value to leveraging shiprider agreements, status-of-forces agreements, and other cooperation mechanisms to maintain security while engaging in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. While these tools may still be helpful in dealing with the confluence of security issues and disaster response, in the more difficult context of a pandemic, additional considerations are required. Before implementing shiprider agreements (which allow law enforcement officials from one state to embark on a vessel of another state) or status-of-forces agreements (which allow one country’s military to operate in another), during a pandemic, careful public health protocols need to be developed. Inviting external actors into a challenging operational theater always comes with risks. It is now formally acknowledged, for example, that the United Nations had a role in causing the devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010 during its response to the massive earthquake there. In light of the current pandemic, and of future ones, states should urgently develop “health protocols” for any shiprider agreements, status-of-forces agreements, or other cooperative agreements that may be needed. These addenda should, through consultation with public health experts, develop protocols for how to implement the agreements during a public health emergency. Considerations for the use of personal protective equipment, contact protocols, social distancing, workstation and equipment hygiene, and related matters should all be addressed. Furthermore, states should work together to determine how best to ensure that law enforcement, security, and disaster response officials are protected from contracting the disease and have clear guidance on how to prevent its spread.

Guidance for Law Enforcement and Disaster Response Amid a Pandemic

Apart from the health protocols of various cooperative agreements, there also needs to be a global effort to develop guidance for law enforcement and disaster response amid a pandemic. Additionally, these cannot only address issues on land. Maritime considerations are extremely important, as the recent situations involving the cruise industry, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the French Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle have indicated. For example, what is the best way to board a vessel and arrest the crew in such a fashion that the disease does not spread? What should law enforcement do if the suspects in a security incident are (or are not) wearing protective masks? How can a suspect be presented before a court with adequate advice of counsel if the lawyer has to maintain two meters of social distance? And how can law enforcement and disaster response officials look after their mental, as well as physical, health when there is an invisible threat at the same time as an obvious one? This guidance needs to be continually reviewed and shared as the understanding of the disease develops and as lessons are learned. Such guidance can also be tailored to specific regional or national contexts.

Preparing for Compound Emergencies

A pandemic is tough to handle. A pandemic in addition to a natural disaster is even more challenging. So, too, is a pandemic plus a security issue. And a pandemic, plus a natural disaster, plus a security issue, may be enough to overwhelm any state. But as 2020 progresses, the possibility of such a double or triple challenge becomes increasingly likely, and has already been felt with the storms, earthquakes, and shootings that have occurred. Even amid the pandemic, states should engage in planning and engaging in exercises to prepare for compound emergencies. Virtual tabletop exercises can help focus agencies on what they can and cannot do to respond right now. And looking beyond the current situation, aggressive planning and preparation for multiple emergencies is crucial for preparedness. Some will always argue that scenarios involving dramatic, simultaneous challenges are too farfetched, but 2020 will long serve as a reminder that they are not.


Now that a global pandemic is a current reality rather than a historical oddity, new approaches to, and procedures for, law enforcement and disaster response are needed. Preparation, proactive rethinking, and consciously letting go of normal assumptions will help reduce the possibility of failure by states, even with limited resources. By stretching beyond the limits of what seems possible, and working to confront the overwhelming challenge of addressing a pandemic, a natural disaster, and a security incident at the same time, states may actually develop policies and procedures that make them more efficient overall — and certainly better able to handle a single emergency. In other words, working to maximize efficiency and effectiveness to handle compound emergencies may improve the state’s “normal” functioning as well. Furthermore, as every country on earth is experiencing significant strategic shock from this pandemic, there is great scope for global cooperation in exchanging lessons, good practices, and cautionary tales. Ultimately, the extent to which states marshal creativity and overlooked resources to address compound emergencies is the extent to which they save, or lose, human lives.



Commodore Tellis Bethel is the 7th Commander Defence Force of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and widely regarded as a key leader on maritime security in the region. He was Commander Defence Force for a number of major hurricanes including Irma, Maria, and, most recently, Dorian.

Dr. Ian Ralby is CEO of I.R. Consilium, a purpose-driven family business that specializes in maritime and resource security. He spent three years as the lead maritime crime expert for UNODC’s Global Maritime Crime Programme in the Caribbean and was in the region for Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and was in the Bahamas in the days after Dorian. He also works on maritime security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief issues around the world, including throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the authors and are not necessarily that of any government or organization. 

Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley)