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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — If a U.S. military aircraft were to crash off base in Misawa city, a team of U.S. military and Japanese first responders would manage the accident scene.

But up until a few months ago, procedures were lacking as to how this joint effort would be orchestrated.

That all changed after a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter crashed on an Okinawa university campus last August, prompting a U.S.-Japan Joint Committee in April to approve new guidelines for handling off-base accidents involving U.S. military aircraft.

On Tuesday, Aomori Prefectural Police invited base officials and representatives of local government agencies to a “tabletop” exercise at the Misawa police station to discuss how the guidelines would theoretically apply to a similar aircraft crash in Misawa. A police spokesman said it was the first exercise of its kind in Japan since the guidelines were revised.

Under the exercise scenario, a U.S. military fighter jet crashed into a Misawa city home, said the spokesman. Both the plane and the house located on Route 338 east of the base burned; the residents were missing and neighbors were injured.

The officials discussed how they would jointly establish cordons around the accident site to limit access and to secure safety of the residents, the police spokesman said.

The new committee guidelines establish two cordons at the scene: An inner ring where joint forces conduct site access and control, and an “outer cordon,” where Japanese authorities exercise exclusive control.

“There are certain things we would take the lead on because of our expertise with military aircraft,” said Senior Master Sgt. Darrin Nicholson, 35th Security Forces Squadron operations superintendent, one of two base representatives at the exercise.

After the CH-53D accident, Okinawa officials protested that local police and firefighters were kept at a distance from the crash scene and were not allowed to join on-site investigations.

U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Col. Victor Warzinski said coordination after the crash “wasn’t effective as it could have been,” and that there appeared to be some misunderstanding as to whom was responsible for what, how and when.

“That’s what really spurred this effort,” he said of the new guidelines, which also call for both the U.S. military and Japanese government to periodically practice how they would implement the revised procedures.

While the guidelines direct that both sides cooperate and exchange information, many of the finer details will have to be worked out by local base and Japanese officials, from the handling of visitors at a crash site to news media access, Warzinski noted.

Nicholson said Tuesday’s exercise was also an opportunity to learn about each side’s emergency-response capabilities; he learned, for example, that the Japanese police have protective suits for hazardous-material response. On the U.S. side, firefighters and Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts take on those assignments, he said.

“I believe it was a great exercise,” said Kenichi Nakamura, Misawa city’s base affairs division chief, who also participated in the exercise. “I hope that a field exercise will be conducted in the future.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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