U.S. Capt. Tom Williams, center, mission commander for Pacific Partnership 2016, addresses participants of a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief symposium during the workshop’s closing ceremony. (U.S. Navy/MC2 Lindsey E. Skelton)

DILI, Timor-Leste - Timor-Leste's defense force Falantil-Forca Defeza Timor Leste (F-FDTL) and Pacific Partnership 2016 co-hosted a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) symposium June 13-17 at F-FDTL headquarters.

During the five-day symposium, civilians and military personnel from Timor Leste, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and humanitarian organizations participated in discussions, workshops and a tabletop exercise built around civilian and military coordination to support a collaborative, rapid response to natural disasters in Timor-Leste.

"Pacific Partnership 2016 represents an excellent opportunity to my country to develop its capacity, to enroot an integrated plan of humanitarian assistance and disaster response while being supported by the international community," said Dr. Cirilo Jose Cristvo, minister of defense of Timor-Leste.

The HADR symposium used the exchange of ideas and relationships among the participating countries and organizations to help strengthen response preparedness. Risk management and first responder training was discussed along with case studies from past disasters. The symposium concluded with a response simulation exercise.

"Through practical exercises, this workshop will build humanitarian assistance and disaster response skills within Timor-Leste," said Karen Stanton, U.S. ambassador, Timor Leste.

"While we can't control the disasters, we can control how they affect us," she said, adding Timor-Leste is the tenth-most disaster susceptible country in the world.

A primary focus of Pacific Partnership 2016 is the subject matter expert exchange of ideas and practices among participating countries in cooperative civilian and military HADR, healthcare and civil and engineering projects.

"[Cooperation] is important, because if you cannot coordinate very well between civilian and military in the case of a big disaster, that means we can't provide an effective and efficient response to the situation," said Adelina Lourdes, United Nations country team secretariat, Timor-Leste.

The symposium also integrated Women, Peace and Security topics, highlighting the importance of women's role in disaster response planning and execution.

According to New Zealand Ambassador to Timor-Leste, Vicki Poole, women's participation during the disaster management planning phase has been proven to increase survivability for women and children, and was an integral part of the symposium.

"The session this week aims to raise awareness of the issues that are faced by women and children in disasters," said Poole. "In disasters, it is women and children who are most vulnerable."

"Certainly people seemed to have very positive feedback about what we actually talked about and the fact that we had relevance to Timor-Leste," said Cmdr. Karen Ward, Royal New Zealand Navy; Women, Peace and Security Lead, Pacific Partnership 2016. "It's certainly an opportunity, and we're hoping by expanding that dialogue and recognizing the need to get women involved, potentially that might open doors for other women to be actively involved in this area."

This is the sixth time Timor-Leste has welcomed Pacific Partnership since its inception in 2006.

"In the past 11 years, the mission has evolved to focus on knowledge exchange amongst partner nations," said Capt. Tom Williams, Pacific Partnership 2016 mission commander. "We are very pleased to learn from our partners in Timor-Leste, share best practices, and continue to find new and innovative ways to increase our collective capacity to respond to natural disasters."

The Pacific Partnership mission began in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunamis to increase the efficiency of multinational coordinated responses of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) sits anchored off the coast of Timor-Leste during Pacific Partnership 2016. (U.S. Navy/MC1 Elizabeth Merriam)