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Leveraging lessons learned to prevent future disasters—insights from the 2013 Colombia-US binational exchange


In 2013, scientists implemented a binational exchange for emergency planners and responders in communities near Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia and volcanoes of the Cascade Range of the United States (US). This program was designed to promote understanding of volcanic disasters and effective mitigation options, motivate participants to strengthen emergency planning efforts, and promote trust-building among participants. The 2013 Binational Exchange was funded by the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), a joint U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)—U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program.

During a week-long visit to Colombian emergency response agencies, Nevado del Ruiz, and lahar-destroyed ruins of the city of Armero and the region of Viejo Rio Claro, US participants became familiar with Colombian counterparts who have had recent and frequent experiences addressing volcanic crises. Aging survivors and authorities of the Nevado del Ruiz catastrophe of 1985 gave participants first-hand accounts, and ideas for improved preparedness and response. While in the US, Colombian participants observed emergency response capabilities and facilities, and received training in systems of incident command. Colombians made presentations to the US public and officials about the similarities of lahar risks in both nations.

This article describes the 2013 Binational Exchange as an experiential learning event and uses results of post-exchange discussions and interviews as evidence of steps achieved within the learning process. Six years hence, this article provides examples of progress with volcano hazards mitigation in both nations. The article offers the binational exchange model as an effective tool that employs both experiential learning and socialization of participants to create a highly motivating and effective learning environment.


The case for ‘long-term ongoing conversations’ between scientists and officials

The groundwork for a disaster-resilient community requires that a whole community and its public officials be well informed about hazards, and capable of implementing risk-reduction measures (Paton et al. 2008; FEMA 2011a) For areas at risk from volcano hazards, the challenges for meeting these conditions are complex, and influenced by a broad assortment of socio-cultural factors, as well as exposure to previous experiences (Lane et al. 2003; Gregg et al. 2004; Chester 2005; Lavigne et al. 2008). This complexity is amplified in volcanic regions where eruption recurrence intervals are often lengthy, and public officials and people at risk have had minimal or no exposure.

Becoming well informed about hazards and effective protective measures requires pre-crisis trust-building among scientists and emergency officials and a complex web of stakeholders as noted by Mileti and Sorensen (1990); Mileti (1999); Barclay et al. (2008); Paton et al. (1999); Haynes et al. (2008a); Marzocchi et al. (2012); and more recently by Donovan and Oppenheimer (2016) and Becker et al. (2017). Mileti refers to the necessity of “long-term ongoing conversations” between scientists and stakeholders, which require two-way and long-term investment. On this issue, Fischhoff (1995) adds that the best hope for successful planning may come through a complex network of mutually respectful relationships. Numerous researchers have recognized that long-term trust, credibility, and community participation can be established through repeated informal interactions and formal demonstrations of agency commitment (Peters et al. 1997; Peterson 1988; GNS 1999; Newhall et al. 1999; Cronin et al. 2004a, 2004b; Ronan and Johnston (2005); Guffanti et al. 2006; Pierce County 2006; Peek et al. (2008); Haynes et al. 2008a and Haynes et al. 2008b; McGuire et al. 2009; and more recently in Donovan et al. 2014, Donovan and Oppenheimer 2016). This relationship building can facilitate response capabilities and identify areas for improvement (Paton and Jackson 2002; Doyle et al. 2015).

Scientists can assist residents by promoting acceptance of hazards information, apprising them of risk-reduction measures, and communicating information during extreme events (Peterson 1988; Newhall and Punongbayan 1996; Newhall et al. 1999; Cronin et al. 2004b; McGuire et al. 2009; Donovan et al. 2014; Pierson et al. 2014; Doyle et al. 2015; Becker et al. 2017). The term Whole Community Approach refers collectively to residents, emergency management practitioners, and leaders cooperatively assessing needs, seeking ways to strengthen their assets, capacities, and interests, and in doing so building societal security and resilience (FEMA 2011a; Sobelson et al. 2015).

Emergency officials bear much of the burden for coordinating emergency planning and response. Thus, there is irony in the fact that traditionally, fewer eruption mitigation trainings and learning products are directed to that audience than to scientists in the form of scientific literature and to geology students as classroom material. The history and breadth of materials for emergency officials is not known to be thoroughly documented, but there is suggestion that availability may be increasing. The twin set of videos about volcanic hazards and reducing risks (IAVCEI 1995, 1996) has been followed by VolFilm products (2019). The Tilling (1989) Short Course is followed by the FEMA Volcano Crisis Awareness course for officials (FEMA 2011b); by the USGS Volcano Volcanic Ash Impacts and Mitigation website (2019); and by the international volcanic ash-hazard response posters for officials, assembled in New Zealand (Wilson et al. 2014). With virtual certainty, smaller regional trainings for emergency officials exist in many nations, as exemplified by GNS (1999). Regardless of the availability and quality of hazards-mitigation information, when the student does not experience volcanic events, a vocabulary can be built without full understanding of meanings. Hence the value of experiential learning, as discussed below.

The case for experiential learning

In one of the twentieth century’s fundamental conversations about effective education, theorists explored relative merits of educating through life experiences, contrasted with educating through systematic classroom education with a teacher as depositor of information. Theorists showed that people learn in transformative stages (Piaget 1952; Dewey 1958). In step with, or perhaps at the lead of twentieth-century cultural changes, the concept of experiential learning rose in favor and today its value is broadly acknowledged. The term experiential learning is defined as the process by which knowledge is created when a person is transformed by experience (Kolb et al. 2001; Kolb 2015). Working with foundations set by his predecessors, Kolb notes that learning progresses in recursive fashion through four cognitive stages: 1) encountering concrete experiences, 2) reflective observation, 3) abstract conceptualization, and 4) active experimentation. Reliance upon experiential learning to gain knowledge about effective eruption response can be problematic in some cases because of the infrequency of accessible eruptive events. This lack of experience can be partially overcome by frequent simulations and subsequent revision of preparedness plans. But, when people cannot visualize hazardous processes, they can be less able to identify and take required mitigation actions. In a paper examining factors that led to residents taking protective measures against eruption effects at Mount St. Helens, Perry and Lindell (1990) conclude that local officials must have: 1) a clear mental picture of eruption outcomes, and 2) knowledge of effective mitigation strategies, along with personal investment in successful mitigation outcomes. Perry and Greene (1983) noted that for emergency officials to be effective in applying information to disaster reduction, they must “see the problem and understand its consequences.”

Binational exchange offers opportunities for experiential learning

Scientists at the United States Geological Survey-Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (USGS-VDAP) and the Servicio Geológico Colombiano (SGC) share a history of scientific mitigation work with an agreement administered through the US Agency for International Development (USGS-USAID). Communities in both nations share common threats, principally associated with lahars. Scientists reasoned that an exchange of emergency officials could be instructive and motivational. An intense and formal two-way venue could promote idea exchange, socialization, trust building, and motivation intra-nation as well as for inter-nation delegations. Travel to a disaster area that included conversations with original first responders and survivors could give officials valuable knowledge and the credibility back home as second-hand witnesses to eruption disaster and recovery. A binational exchange could provide opportunities for experiential learning.

This article describes the August–September 2013 Colombia-US Binational Exchange between emergency management officials near Mount Rainier (and one official from near Mount Baker) in the Cascade Range of the US, and their counterparts near Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia. We describe conditions prior to the 2013 exchange, implementation, and some results. We document methodologies used to capture participants’ responses, evidence of learning, some lessons learned, and their application. The authors, all of whom were participants, demonstrate how an international exchange can afford opportunities for public officials to view firsthand the effects of lahars, observe mitigation and response strategies used by communities facing similar threats, and engage in discussions of cooperative planning within their home communities. The paper reveals the value of such an exchange as an educational and socializing tool, and its potential for application elsewhere.

This 2013 exchange was the first in a continuing series (binational exchanges to date are noted later in this article). We address the 2013 binational exchange alone because it was the first; it has been most documented and analyzed by participants; it was a catalyst for the funding of additional exchanges; and it provided evidence of the transformative value of international exchanges. This article provides an opportunity for binational exchange participants and their peers to reexamine the status of their efforts since the event. Readers considering organizing a binational exchange may find encouragement in the article.


Nevado del Ruiz

Nevado del Ruiz is a broad glacier-capped stratovolcano located near the northern end of the Andes volcanic chain, approximately 100 km west of Bogota, Colombia (Fig. 1 and 2). The volcano rises ca. 5320 m above sea level and towers over the valleys of the Rio Magdalena on the east and the Rio Cauca to the west. Nevado del Ruiz is characterized by broad flanks with steep-walled canyons that are near vertical in some locations and which are efficient conveyors of lahars. On the east side, the valleys extend approximately 60 km to a mountain front, where the rivers flow across alluvial fans that are the sites of towns and cities. On the volcano’s northwest side, small communities exist within the narrow valleys. Historical records chronicle eruptions in 1595 and 1845 that killed more than 600 and 1000 people, respectively, at the site of the City of Armero (Siebert et al. 2010).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Photo of Nevado del Ruiz from the north. On the evening of November 13, 1985, snow and ice on this summit ice cap melted and provided water for lahars. One formed on the northeast flank (Rio Azufrado) while a second originated on the Rio Lagunillas to the east. The two flows traveled down their respective valleys independently and joined. Around 11:30 pm the first lahar exited the mountain front and burst upon Armero, followed by a second surge. Photo by Milton Ordóñez Servicio Geológico Colombiano (SGC)

Fig. 2
figure 2

Aerial photo of Armero, Colombia shows partial destruction caused by a lahar on November 13, 1985, that killed approximately 21,000 people at this site alone (see Pierson et al. 1990). Pattern of streets and building foundations are visible in the debris field at center of photo. USGS photo by R.J. Janda, 9 Dec 1985

On the night of November 13, 1985, Nevado del Ruiz erupted and generated large lahars that swept down the valleys draining the summit area to the west, northeast, and east, resulting in more than 23,000 casualties (Voight 1990; Mileti et al. 1991; Hall et al. 1992) (Fig. 2). Observers and researchers reported details of events leading up to the eruption and lahars (Calvache 1990; Pierson et al. 1990), and the significant human factors that led to disasters at Armero and communities of the Chinchiná drainage (Voight 1990).

Lahars continue to threaten these communities that are now in part safeguarded by lahar detection systems, and by removal of people from the pre-1985 location of Armero. Approximately 50,000 to 80,000 people were at risk in drainages from the volcano during the 1985 event (Mileti et al. 1991) (Table 1).

Table 1 Nevado del Ruiz and Mount Rainier comparative factors

Cascade Range hazards

In Washington State, five large glacier-clad volcanoes loom over densely populated lowland areas and are the sources of past and future lahars that pose risks similar to those at Nevado del Ruiz. Each Cascade Range volcano sustains glaciers that feed rivers in narrow valleys, which lead to large human population centers downstream. In Washington State, an estimated 191,555 residents, 108,719 employees at 8807 businesses, 433 public venues, and 354 dependent care facilities exist in lahar hazard zones (Diefenbach et al. 2015). Eruptions at all five volcanoes threaten both small and large human communities, industrial facilities, power infrastructure, agricultural producers, airspace, rail, road and river traffic, fish and wildlife habitats, and ultimately the regional economy of the nation’s Pacific Northwest.

Mount Rainier (Fig. 3) is a 4392 m-high stratovolcano formed during the past 500,000 years by the accumulation of countless lava flows and loose debris layers. Sisson and Vallance (2009) note the presence of ten to twelve eruptions during the past 2600 years. Central to its geological story is the development and continued presence of weak and collapse-prone hydrothermally altered rock, and glacier ice and perennial snow that during much of its history enveloped the volcano and which at present cover about 100 km2. The volcano’s slopes are mantled by loose glacial-fluvial rock debris that can be remobilized quickly as it mixes with rainwater and snow and ice meltwater to make seasonal debris flows and eruption-related lahars. Five major glaciofluvial rivers commence at the termini of valley glaciers and they flow down narrow valleys to lowland areas that support large human populations.

Fig. 3
figure 3

a, b Photo of Mount Rainier with Puyallup valley in foreground in 1994 and 2014. On multiple occasions lahars flowed off the slopes of Mount Rainier to valleys as much as tens of km distant. A lack of land-use restrictions has allowed significant growth to continue on the valley floor that is at risk from future lahars. USGS photos 3a by David Wieprecht; 3b by E. Ruttledge

During eruptions of the past 5600 years, lahars have traveled down most of Mount Rainier’s steep-walled valleys, and spread over the flat valley floors 50 km or more from the volcano. These lahar deposits have been well documented as to source and age by examination of the rocks’ provenance (Crandell 1971; Scott et al. 1992) and by the presence of tree stumps from forests buried and preserved by lahar debris (Pringle 2008). Mount Rainier is potentially one of the most hazardous volcanoes in the US (Hoblitt et al. 1998; Ewert et al. 2005). This designation is based upon knowledge of the volcano’s eruptive style and frequency and the risks to people and infrastructure. More than 100,000 people and greater than $10B of built property exist in the areas potentially subject to lahars (Cakir and Walsh 2012). Economic activity in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area is also subject to volcanic ash fall (Wood and Soulard 2009a; Wood and Soulard 2009b) (Fig. 3). Some comparative factors are shown in Table 1.

Conditions of volcano hazards preparedness leading into the 2013 binational exchange

The 1985 Nevado del Ruiz incident had profoundly devastating consequences, but also later constructive effects within Colombia and international scientific and disaster management communities. At the national level, Colombia created a disaster preparedness and response system, the scope of which eventually was extended to encompass risk management at all levels of government (Vargas 2014). Colombia has trained its volcanologists, developed monitoring and warning systems, established communication with officials, and for over 30 years has implemented community education programs that have been used successfully in managing populations during volcano crises. The Colombian Geological Survey (SGC) is responsible for studying past and present activity of the nation’s volcanoes. This responsibility now includes evaluating hazards, creating volcano hazard assessments and scenarios of activity, and monitoring and diagnosing volcanic activity (Fog 2015). These efforts were pioneered at the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Manizales (OVSM) and were later extended to two other observatories at Pasto in 1980 and Popayán in 1993. Since 1985, Colombia has published volcano hazards assessments for 10 of 16 active volcanoes, installed hundreds of volcano monitoring stations, and developed a standardized alert activity level system and associated standard system for issuing information bulletins (Fog 2015). As of 2019 the nation supports monitoring 23 active volcanoes with 665 volcano monitoring stations. Worni et al. (2011) refers to evidence the death toll of lahars at Colombia’s Nevado del Huila in 2007 and 2008 might have been higher if not for public education, installation of monitoring systems, and development of warning systems.

Despite this progress over thirty-plus years, Colombian volcanologists recognize that communication with the public and partners within the national system of risk management must move beyond the delivery of purely scientific results and provide meaningful information that can result in disaster prevention (Cortés 2011). Information about the volcanoes, hazards, and monitoring must be framed and socialized for the non-scientist (Fig. 4). The volcano observatories in Colombia approach the socialization (or social appropriation) of volcano knowledge (defined in Colombia as dissemination of hazard information) through a variety of approaches including observatory open houses, visits to schools, the Bienal Nacional de Niños, Niñas y Jóvenes que viven en zonas de riesgo volcánico, which is a biennial gathering for children and youth living in volcano hazard areas, talks and workshops, guided visits to the observatories, web page content, and a Facebook page, for example. With these activities, the volcano observatories are going beyond simply translating the science for the public and are developing professional relationships with communities, authorities, and news media. While much has been accomplished, there is long-term need to maintain public understanding and support for mitigation efforts.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Colombian scientists developed an activity level system and easy to understand graphics that describe conditions at Colombia’s volcanoes. Servicio Geológico Colombiano (SGC)

Fig. 5
figure 5

Binational Exchange participants from Colombia and the US discuss source region of the 1985 lahar along the Rio Azufrado. USGS photo by C. Driedger August, 2013

In the US, the 1985 Nevado del Ruiz catastrophe in part prompted formation of the internationally focused USGS-USAID Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP). Domestically since the 1980s, volcano monitoring has advanced from the placement of isolated instruments to wholly integrated networks at more than a dozen volcanoes of the Cascade Range. They consist of approximately 75 seismometers and 60 GPS units within 16 kms of each volcano. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory updated volcano hazard assessments for Cascade Range volcanoes. Following the presentations of these hazard assessments, county officials and the Washington State Military Department’s Emergency Management Division established long-term volcano hazard work groups to develop emergency coordination plans that address hazards at their respective volcanoes (Pierce County 2008). Each volcano hazard work group consists of emergency officials, community leaders, and scientists who develop, exercise, and maintain emergency coordination plans that employ the National Incident Management System (NIMS) for incident command (Homeland Security 2008), and who promote community risk-reduction measures.

Interest within the Mount Rainier volcano hazard work group prompted creation of the Living with a volcano in your backyard outreach program in 1995 that, while managed by USGS, is implemented with broad participation of local, state, and federal officials and concerned residents in areas at risk. This program began at the initiative of state and local officials and it follows general tenants of Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction (CBDRR) (Cadig et al. 2016). The goal is to encourage officials, individuals, and lahar-vulnerable populations to take responsibility for risk reduction within their communities through collaborative projects and services. Some examples include regular and occasional trainings with educational materials for the general public (Driedger et al. 1998), school educators (Driedger et al. 2005; Myers and Driedger 2008a; Myers and Driedger 2008b), park interpreters (Driedger et al. 2002), and the news media (Driedger and Scott 2010). Some of this work is further analysed or described by Johnston et al. (2006), Cadig et al. (2016), Pierson et al. (2014), and Perry et al. (2016).

These products and services, planned and assembled with the active participation of stakeholders, can empower people to conduct mitigation activities (Paton et al. 2008). In these endeavors, US scientists used the 1985 story of Nevado del Ruiz to illustrate the destructive power of lahars through the power of narrative as discussed by Dahlstrom (2014) and often with display of a single aerial photograph that shows part of the impacted city of Armero. (Fig. 2).

Fig. 6
figure 6

Colombian visitors were guests at Mount Rainier National Park where they observed lahar deposits and exhibits intended to teach visitors about lahar hazards. USGS photo by C. Driedger, 2013


Outline of the exchange

During the spring of 2013, ten Colombians (nine traveled) and ten US participants were selected by SGC and USGS in consultation with lead emergency management officials to participate in the binational exchange, based upon their capacity to direct policy and programming within their agency. Most participants within each delegation had at least minor knowledge of each other. Some participants had aided in responses to eruptions at Mount St. Helens (1980) or Nevado del Ruiz (1985) and had prior knowledge and professional involvement in volcano mitigation efforts. Several participants had ‘close calls’ at previous volcanic events and had suffered personal losses, a fact that they attributed to increasing their motivation for fostering volcano risk reduction.

The binational exchange concept exists well within the larger mission of USAID/OFDA, which, amid other goals, is to produce humanitarian efforts to save lives (USAID 2019). Their funding of this binational exchange allowed concentrated learning opportunities that otherwise would not be readily available to local emergency officials of either nation. We show a list of agencies involved in the 2013 binational exchange in Table 2. Tables 3 and 4 display trip itineraries respectively for US participants visiting Colombia (Fig. 5), and Colombian participants visiting the US (Fig. 6).

Table 2 Home agencies of participants involved in the 2013 Colombia-US binational exchange trips
Table 3 Itinerary for US travelers to Colombia, August 2013
Table 4 Itinerary for Colombian travelers to the US, September 2013

Methods to establish effectiveness of the observations

Participants were encouraged to document their trip by note taking, photos and video. Near the end of the trip and within several months thereafter, organizers used three types of interviews to record evidence of learning.

  • Organizers arranged for a USGS media specialist to videotape one-on-one interviews of US and Colombian participants during the September binational exchange. Individuals were asked to speak generally about how the experience was important to them, most important lessons learned, mitigation methods that are tranferable between the volcanoes, and most meaningful aspects of the trip. Organizers transcribed much of the video.

  • Organizers began one-on-one semi-structured interviews with US participants prior to their return to the US to collect first impressions and highlights of lessons learned. To aid this process, participants were asked to answer three questions: ‘What I Learned’, ‘How I plan to apply it”, and ‘Recommendations’ to homebound colleagues. At end of the trip, most participants noted mental overload, and the need for reflection. In months following the exchange, input given in initial semi-structured interviews was returned in written form to each participant to be completed more thoroughly. This information was assembled internally in table format for later analysis.

  • Colombian organizers assembled all of their participants for a post-exchange structured discussion, asking the same questions verbally as with the US group. Their responses were recorded collectively (rather than individually) and referred to by each location visited within the US. This information was entered into table format similar to that developed for US participants.

  • In a form of thematic analysis described by Maguire and Delahunt (2017), the information was analyzed for patterns and fitted into categories within Kolb’s learning cycle. This entailed gaining initial familiarity with the content, coding by general themes, assigning one or more cognitive learning stages to participants’ statements, and then listing statements thematically. Representative examples are included in this article.

Results and discussion

Within this section, Observations by participants provides evidence of learning using procedures described in Methods. Manifestations of the 2013 binational exchange explores longer-term manifestations of the 2013 binational exchange, both in Colombia and the US, and 2013 Binational Exchange inspires additional inter and intra-nation exchanges, which describes later venues.

Observations by participants

We list five themes that emerged from the US delegation and four themes expressed by the Colombians. Observational quotes chosen for inclusion are broadly representative of all observations cited by participants. Quotes originate from the semi-structured interview questions, and from video interviews. Parentheses indicate the relevance of specific observations to the four cognitive stages of experiential learning theory noted by Kolb et al. (2001) and Kolb (2015), as discussed further in the Introduction: 1) encountering concrete experiences, 2) reflective observation, 3) abstract conceptualization, and 4) active experimentation.

US theme 1: the exchanges brought eye-opening realizations about lahar disaster realities

The trip provided a new recognition of disaster realities, even for officials who previously had possessed textbook knowledge of the Nevado del Ruiz disaster. Kolb (2015) refers to a creative tension that is released as participants first grasp, then are transformed by the experience through the assimilation and distillation of information (concrete experience, abstract conceptualization, and reflective observation)

“Experiencing Armero, Viejo Rio Claro, and Chinchiná first-hand was completely different than what I had expected based on what I learned in Volcanology classes. It really opened my eyes to the reality of a crisis of this magnitude.”

“We seem to think that this is an issue that only impacts a small area of Washington (State). People do not understand the infrastructure impacts that this will have and how long they will last.”

Some learning led to comparisons with the volcanoes in the US, and intentions to act. (reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, active experimentation)

“When we went to Armero, something I’d seen and talked about, it really drove home the point of how similar the volcano of Mount Rainier is to the Nevado del Ruiz and the hazards that both volcanoes share. And it really opened my eyes to the things the Colombians had done that worked really well and continue to this day to work really well, and the ways that we can improve our emergency systems to make sure that the tragedies that happened in Armero in 1985 are not replicated here at Mount Rainier.”

“The testimonials from the survivors made such an impact on me. As planners we try to plan for catastrophes though without ever experiencing the loss of hundreds, thousands of innocent people. This experience helps me ensure that the plans I create are actionable and something we can train and exercise to.”

One participant expressed new perspective based upon reactions of visiting Colombians. (reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, active experimentation)

(During visits by Colombians to the US) “The Colombians were shocked and alarmed when they saw Orting. They were scared for us. We have adjusted to the threat and haven't had the human history impacts from an event like the Armero lahar to be scared.”

“Life is going to be different after a (lahar) disaster.”

US theme 2: there is great value in community preparation, including early childhood and lifelong learning about hazards and disaster reduction measures, and detailed planning for response

Numerous researchers acknowledge the value of including children in development of disaster reduction measures. Researchers at Vesuvius (Barberi et al. 2008; Carlino et al. 2008) address the need to educate school students as do Aspinall et al. (2002) at Montserrat, and Cardona (1997) in Colombia. During the Binational Exchange, New Armero (Armero Guayabal) then-mayor Mauricio Cuellar Arias, himself a survivor who as a boy lost many relatives during the 1985 lahar disaster, validated these studies when he stated the importance of early and lifelong education. Arias noted a basic lack of knowledge about the geographic connection between Armero and Nevado del Ruiz, adding that in school, children are introduced to great rivers of the world such as the Mississippi and Amazon. But he noted that they have not been taught about the connections that local rivers such as Rio Azufrado and Rio Lagunillas have to Nevado del Ruiz.

Participants saw evidence of post-1985 improvements in public knowledge of hazards as they asked questions of young children who followed the participants along a roadway in Viejo Rio Claro - Chinchiná. When asked about sirens situated around the town that are tested regularly, children noted that when the sirens sound, it means that a lahar is coming, that they should run up the hill, and that the sirens are not toys for play. (reflective observation and abstract conceptualization)

“Preparedness begins at an early age and the children we saw in Viejo Rio Claro Chinchiná knew EXACTLY what to do if the [lahar] alarm went off. All of the emergency planners in the country are determined to NEVER let what happened in 1985 happen again.”

One US participant summed up the importance of lifelong education. (concrete experience, reflective observation and abstract conceptualization)

“The lack of information about volcano hazards begins in childhood with insufficient education about a community's connectedness to volcanoes. Later in life, and when volcano alerts are issued, this gap manifests as denial, and inability to move quickly due to limited understanding and motivation to take necessary actions that ensure survival.”

Participants recognized the value of detailed planning and providing communities with detailed information for mitigation and recovery. (concrete experience, reflective observation and abstract conceptualization)

“[Need] dissemination of more specific what-to-do instructions.”

“Appreciation for pre-identification of evacuation routes and emergency information hubs. Colombians include evacuation routes on some hazard maps. There is value in obtaining local input for identification of routes and hubs.”

“Importance of telling people about the evacuation plan. During evacuations, there were incidents of cars striking pedestrians. Make evacuation plan so that cars don’t conflict with evacuees on foot. At Ruiz they did not have antibiotics and blood plasma to aid survivors, and this caused many post-event fatalities.”

“There is great value in scientists and emergency officials talking with local people about hazards and gaining their trust. A few dedicated individuals effected big changes (installation and regular testing of porch sirens, education of small children, evacuation routes identified and used in practice).“

One participant from the US expressed intention to ensure that his staff and their families are knowledgeable, and both personally and professionally prepared so that staff can dedicate time to their jobs knowing that their families are safe. (abstract conceptualization and active experimentation)

“The one thing that I took from this for me, is to make sure your employees are prepared and their families are prepared. And that is going to be my mission -- to make sure that [our] Fire and Rescue [group] is ready, prepared and have practiced our plan. And then we can pass that culture of preparedness down for generations to come.”

US theme 3: there is power in belief as well as knowledge that a disaster can happen

Paton et al. (2008); Paton et al. (2010) discussed mental models with the required steps that lead from initial awareness to actions for preparedness. They further demonstrated the value of understanding the hazard and having a belief in the efficacy of hazards reduction and in their ability to apply it to their lives. This includes internalizing the message by first trusting the source; having belief in one’s ability to take action, and belief that actions will be successful. One of the most memorable moments reported by participants occurred during a visit with a survivor near Chinchiná (El Pescador), who had lost many relatives during the 1985 disaster, including his mother. When asked about what message participants should bring back to people at risk from lahars in the US, he stated that we should believe that it can happen, identify a valid information source, and take action when told to do so. (reflective observation and abstract conceptualization)

“Learned from survivors—Know your hazards. Know how to prepare for them. Know where to get reliable information. Act when needed—don’t hesitate. BELIEVE it can happen.”

“The final thing that the survivors said is to believe it can happen and believe it can happen to you. Because if you can get to that point, the rest of the preparation will make sense, and you will do it.”

In conversations among survivors and their relatives, traumatic memories of the 1985 disaster and the belief that it could happen again empower a psychological phenomenon known locally as the ‘Ghost of Armero’ that local authorities claim re-traumatizes, yet also motivates people to remain vigilant. (reflective observation and abstract conceptualization)

“The Ghost of Armero’ serves as a powerful symbol for why they need to work together rather than at cross purposes.”

US theme 4: rebuilding community is more than fixing the infrastructure

A US participant with an economic development background hypothesized that even if significant structural damage alone had caused impacts without loss of life, Armero still might not have survived as a vibrant community. Local inhabitants suggested to US participants that after the lahar, other communities were able to fill the economic role previously played by businesses in Armero. Once that substitution happened, the role was unlikely to have returned to the people who constituted the Armero business community, now devoid of the physical infrastructure they needed to operate.

Colombian hosts stated that after the 13 November 1985 lahar, some residents relocated to the north in nearby New Armero/Guayabal and other communities, but the disjointed global response to the tragedy contributed to fragmentation of the social community. With the physical infrastructure of the community gone, there was not a concerted and coordinated effort, at least not in the early days of the recovery, to relocate survivors in proximity to each other. Multiple organizations stepped in to help with relocation and rehousing. But efforts to build housing occurred whenever and wherever the opportunity arose, regardless of how those actions fragmented the relationships that constituted the community. The immediate need to shelter large numbers of people overruled considerations for the longer-term impacts on the community. (concrete experience and reflective observation)

“Rebuilding community is much more than fixing the infrastructure. It’s important to facilitate the reestablishment of relationships in a way that does not exacerbate problems that existed before the disaster.”

In their paper about creating hazard-resilient communities, Burby et al. (2000) identify land-use planning as the most promising approach for sustainable hazard mitigation and note the importance of hazards assessments and of crafting programs to manage urban development. Burby et al. (2000) note the broad scope of research suggesting that when local governments make the right choices in considering and implementing principles of land-use planning, communities are less likely to suffer severe losses of life and property during natural disasters. But, land use planning and zoning have their limits in an environment of strong property rights protection and economic imperatives, and where experience with the hazard is low (Perry and Lindell 2008). Even after disastrous events such as the Mount St. Helens eruption, some people want to accept the risks of living in general proximity to geologically dynamic areas (Perry and Greene 1983).

US theme 5: strong interpersonal relationships, resident involvement in warning system maintenance, and cultural memories can contribute to effectiveness

In Colombia, some residents play a personal role in lahar warnings by hosting government lahar warning sirens beneath house eaves and in community common areas, and by aiding with regular testing (Fig. 7). US participants inferred that the close personal interactions in Colombia enable a sense of societal connection and care. There was a general sense that experiencing warm personal relationships might balance out some advantages of more impersonal and complex technological warning systems used in the US. (concrete experience, reflective observation and abstract conceptualization)

“Colombians are more family and community oriented as a culture than we are, and that is reflected in their professional relationships. It allows them to have connections that span [mental] silos rather than reinforce them.”

“Close personal ties within a community aid their ability to inform one another— more so than in the US with all our technologies.”

Fig. 7
figure 7

In the upper center portion of the photo, a lahar siren system is visible mounted on a pole in the village of Viejo Rio Claro Chinchiná. Unlike in the US, local residents in Colombia have a personal role in lahar notification as they host and regularly test lahar siren devices installed beneath roof eaves and in public areas. USGS Photo by C. Driedger 2013

Observations by delegation from Colombia

Colombian theme 1: a binational exchange invites comparison of risk reduction measures

These comments demonstrate the ability of the binational exchange to deliver perspective to Colombian participants, who perhaps for the first time were able to compare their lahar detection and warning systems with analogs in other nations. (concrete experiences, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization)

“During our visit to Washington State, we were able to gain an appreciation for the advanced nature of the emergency response systems, protocols, and infrastructure that are available for emergency management in the Mount Rainier area.”

“At Mount Rainier, we were particularly impressed with the evacuation routes and signage in valleys most at risk from lahars. We would like to adopt a similar evacuation route signage program at Nevado del Ruiz. Our US colleagues have shared the sign image with us so that we can adapt it for use in Colombia.”

“At the same time, we were able to recognize and appreciate all the progress we have made in Colombia since 1985 in regards to volcano emergency management thanks to the support of the Colombian government and international assistance.”

Colombian theme 2: the binational exchange offered an opportunity to leverage participants’ own experiences to help others

There is potential for catharsis and motivational power in sharing pain, and perhaps the pain of disaster (Kearney 2008). These statements demonstrate a sense of validation for the intense efforts expended with post-1985 risk reduction efforts, and recognition that while survivors cannot bring back the people lost in 1985, the tragedy is useful for saving lives elsewhere. (concrete experiences, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation)

“In seminars given to decision makers and the public, we emphasized the lessons we had learned about volcano disasters such as the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz, how we applied these lessons to the eruptions of Nevado del Huila in 2007 and 2008, and how volcanic eruptions do not need to be synonymous with volcanic disasters.

“I hope you can use us. The experience and the tragedy of Armero doesn’t have to happen again, not in Colombia and not here, not in another place. And we have to learn from the bad experience of others. And we have to discuss and improve what we are planning to do and share those experiences.”

“We can support each other. We are working and we know that we have a very large responsibility working in a volcano observatory but also you as a community, as a teacher, as an authority, as a decision-maker. You have your role, your responsibility in this community. So, we have to learn from each other. The volcano may erupt, but the tragedy doesn’t have to happen. And that is the point.”

“As technicians we feel obligated to tell the decision makers that they must act in order to prevent catastrophes. In light of the experience we lived through in ‘85, we can tell you what an event of this nature is all about. It’s solemn, delicate, complicated and human pain is transmitted to all the people who lose loved ones.”

“It is a very important Binational Exchange due to the parallel geographical and physical similarities as well as the risk components of the surrounding areas of the volcanoes; we are learning from each other how to improve our capabilities so that we can protect the safety of the citizens in both regions.”

“I believe, we must continue to share all our experiences and the knowledge of formal education in order to reduce risks in the event of a volcanic eruption anywhere in the world.”

Colombian theme 3: tourism and visitor facilities provide potential for volcano hazards education

Colombian participants visited museum facilities at Mount Rainier National Park and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which offer eyewitness accounts of eruptions, descriptions of geologic processes, evidence of past eruptions and current hazards, and guidance for safety. US park interpreters introduced participants to the Thematic Interpretation methodology. In this broadly accepted philosophy of park interpretation, exhibit information and face-to-face interpretation by professional park rangers provokes visitor thinking most effectively when it is thematic, organized, relevant, entertaining (TORE), and is presented as meaningful themes supported by select examples (Ham 1992; Ham 2013). There may be additional provocation to action when visitors respond to interpretation within established social groups such as families, friends, and classes. Comments about the importance of hazards-trained park staff also reinforce observations by Bird et al. (2010) in volcanic parks of Iceland, and policies promoting emergency response and communication training at Mount Rainier (Driedger et al. 2002), and at Mount St. Helens (Frenzen and Matarrese 2008; Driedger et al. 2008). Colombian participants perceived this as a model for use in Colombia. (concrete experiences, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization)

“At Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, we observed the great potential of tourism as a process for teaching visitors about the volcanoes and past volcanic events. From this experience we recognized the potential for interpretation centers near Nevado del Ruiz, which can help preserve the lessons learned in 1985 regarding risk management. These facilities can greatly improve the capabilities of our volcano hazards outreach program.”

“Mt St. Helens and Mt Rainier are icons at state, national and international levels, and are seen as tourist and recreational places with economic uses, while the risks are recognized and are reported to visitors.”

“Visitor Centers facilitate the interpretation of the messages of prevention and preparedness risk through design and teaching tools”.

“At Mount St. Helens, I was impressed with the experience and professionalism of the Rangers to prevent risks to visitors.”

Colombian theme 4: we acknowledge cultural differences and common concerns

Colombian participants made some broad statements about cultural differences and similarities, mainly in reference to societal customs. (concrete experiences, reflective observation)

“Your concerns are the same as ours and in this we are equals. But the ways in which we see things make us very different…[and]…it’s the customs and the ways of life that makes us different, of course.”

“And it’s very important because it has allowed us to enter into the very similar realities of two far away countries, far away in distance only, because at the same time we are very close since we face similar situations as far as volcanoes are concerned. Therefore, we as volcanologists, as observatories and as fellow human beings are brought to work together towards the same goal.”

Manifestations of the 2013 binational exchange

Manifestations of program effectiveness are addressed in two categories: Building of common understanding, relationships and trust, and Acceleration of progress on efforts for risk reduction.

Building of common understanding, relationships, and trust

Trust built through common experience and relationship building has been cited as necessary for effective mitigation on multiple levels---between scientists and officials, officials and the public, and scientists and the public (Barclay et al. 2008; Haynes et al. 2008a, and Haynes et al. 2008b). In their study about fostering trust and credibility, Peters et al. (1997) provided evidence that public perceptions of governmental commitment can increase the sense of trust and credibility, as does perceived knowledge and expertise of citizen advocacy groups.

Proof of mutual common understanding and perhaps of trust exists 6 years after the 2013 binational exchange, as US scientists and officials resume conversations via email and telephone for discussion of volcanoes with familiarity and without introduction. Evidence of trust among officials exists in their ability to work together in volcano hazard work groups, and in their making frequent references to travel experiences. Indications of increased relationship building and commitment towards community members are evident from the approximately 40 presentations provided to audiences of residents at local libraries and community safety groups, and larger audiences at professional preparedness events between 2013 and 2018. In these presentations, participants conveyed their lessons learned in Colombia and spoke of similarities of hazards within the two nations. They also spoke to colleagues informally, at agency trainings, and at professional geoscience meetings, including at the 2014 Partnerships in Preparedness emergency management conference (Beason et al. 2014; Driedger et al. 2014; Driedger and Ewert 2015); and created a web-based video (Westby 2015). One example of improved perception of improved trust, commitment, concern, and care for at-risk residents is found in the community of Orting near Mount Rainier, where evacuation planning for many years had been accomplished independently, both by the school district and by emergency planners, but is now accomplished as a coordinated effort. Additionally, in order to promote an efficient evacuation of Orting, trusted partnerships built with officials in neighboring cities of Puyallup and Sumner now promote coordinated lahar evacuation plans across the region.

Multiple agencies have achieved a sense of trust and work in partnership on common outreach products and venues as noted in the section below. The public’s current willingness to work as support personnel during evacuation drills, to promote new ideas for rapid community evacuation, and to host emergency managers in their homes for neighborhood meetings is evidence of a larger body of community expertise, knowledge, trust, and credibility.

One of the Colombians’ long-term challenges has been to maintain long-term professional relationships between officials of different jurisdictions (departments that are akin to US states). The 2013 Binational Exchange included officials from the departments of Caldas and Tolima, which represent different flanks and lahar-prone valleys, and remote communities around Nevado del Ruiz. During the Binational Exchange, some Colombian travellers became acquainted with one another for the first time. The 2013 Binational Exchange trips in Colombia and the US strengthened relationships and mutual credibility among officials in Caldas and Tolima, and enabled more coherent mitigation efforts. These interactions have spread to communications with classroom teachers and the news media. Conversations during preparations for visiting participants from the US included community-based teachers, students, emergency response groups, mayors and other officials, and the news media. This broad approach has increased the number of trusted interactions among the above groups and strengthened their official communications through common purpose.

Acceleration of progress in volcano risk reduction

In post-Binational Exchange interviews, US participants expressed intentions to advance volcano mitigation within their respective professions. The Mount Rainier National Park geologist stated intentions to use the information from the Colombians’ experiences to enhance staff safety training; to develop lahar evacuation routes in populated areas within the park; and to improve the park’s capacity to respond safely to small seasonal debris flows. His efforts began immediately upon return from the Binational Exchange. To date, the park geologist has developed park lahar evacuation routes, referenced the Colombians’ experiences repeatedly in park safety trainings and more broadly with professional geology colleagues; installed new stream gages on debris flow-prone rivers in the park; and developed a weather algorithm that identifies periods of enhanced likelihood of seasonal debris flows. He maintains attendance at multi-agency volcano hazard work group meetings that address updating and maintenance of emergency coordination plans, and professional involvement in the local fire department.

The economic development council staff member stated intentions to broaden the planning community’s consideration of community planning measures that decrease damage and mortality during disasters, and improve the likelihoods for survival and rapid recovery. He facilitates relationship building between land-use planners and emergency managers as an ongoing and long-term professional responsibility. He has worked in support of more recent binational exchange events and attends some volcano-related planning meetings.

Emergency management participants collectively expressed intentions for greater inclusion of volcano hazards in emergency planning documents, and for more volcano hazards education for professional colleagues and the public. Within a year after their return, emergency managers developed public interpretive signs and webpages about volcanic hazards and preparedness for Mount Rainier, and soon after at Mount Baker and Glacier Peak (Schelling et al. 2014; Ekse et al. 2015) (Fig. 8). The Binational Exchange prompted additional invitations from officials to scientists to offer the FEMA Volcano Crisis Awareness (2011b) training in multiple communities, almost doubling the number of offerings given in the 3 years previous. Some participants now hold positions of greater responsibility than in 2013. One of the emergency management participants now oversees county operation of the Mount Rainier lahar notification system. Another emergency manager, who had been stationed at the State’s health department, notes that the binational exchange broadened his understanding of effective eruption response. He oversaw the inclusion of lahar (mudflow) information on the health agency’s website; his binational exchange presentation has been shown dozens of times to professional and public audiences. Now at the State Department of Transportation, he intends to include lahars within the agency’s new catastrophe planning tools. Yet another 2013 participant now addresses all hazards at the Federal level. The Mount Baker focused emergency manager expressed intentions to ensure that volcanoes were incorporated in the Whatcom County Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan; that the Mount Baker-Glacier Peak Coordination Plan was updated and exercised; and that volcano-specific public outreach and education was conducted. These tasks, and others related to volcano hazards mitigation have been accomplished.

Fig. 8
figure 8

This outdoor interpretive sign at Central Park in Orting, Washington was designed by some participants of the 2013 binational exchange and their agency colleagues. USGS photo by C. Driedger, October 10, 2014

Today, the fire chief draws a direct connection between the 2013 binational exchange and current coordinated plans for action within the fire department, with adjacent jurisdictions, and with school and city government. He stated his intentions to write and exercise a lahar emergency Plan of Action, and then to develop a template of it for surrounding fire response jurisdictions. During the trip to Colombia, he recognized the extent of long-term engagement that would be required of his staff during a lahar emergency, and he proposed to encourage employees to make preparedness plans with their families. Additionally, he hoped for an informal sister status between fire departments in Manizales, Colombia and Orting, US. Since 2013, the fire chief has been promoting employee family preparedness; he has overseen development of a Plan of Action for Orting and coordinated development of similar plans with adjacent fire jurisdictions. The fire chief foresees a time when the Action Plan can be enacted automatically when a lahar is detected, and when the plan will include provision of aid from non-affected areas. While visiting Colombia, the fire chief was intrigued by the well-coordinated multi-agency planning of lahar evacuation drills. In response to his 2013 observations, the fire chief has reached out to school administrators who had been conducting school district planned lahar evacuation drills since the late 1990s. Today, lahar evacuation drills in Orting are accomplished as a multi-agency effort with involvement of the school district, fire department, city government, and adjacent jurisdictions. In his post-binational exchange interview the fire chief noted the tragedies of car-pedestrian accidents in Amero during evacuation from the 1985 lahar. Currently, lahar evacuation routes in Orting are being adjusted to minimize potential car-pedestrian accidents during drills and actual evacuations.

The science agency outreach coordinator stated intentions to work with state and local agencies to improve coordination of state-wide volcano hazards awareness/preparedness plans that could inform policy decisions to improve consistency of products and messaging; expansion of the volcano hazards product portfolio and information hubs for the public; and review of messages and operational plans. Professional connections developed through the Binational Exchange have promoted consistency in product styles and messaging. The outreach coordinator has worked in partnership with emergency management colleagues to update emergency preparedness plans with particular attention to updating and clarifying emergency communications plans. Overall, outreach coordination has benefited from new professional connections and from long-term involvement by 2013 Binational Exchange participants in volcano hazard risk reduction efforts.

For the Colombians, the 2013 visit to park interpretive facilities at Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens inspired them to consider geoparks as platforms for teaching about volcano hazards and risk reduction, for memorializing previous volcanic disasters, and for strengthening connections between their observatories and park managers who regulate the placement of scientific monitoring devices. Colombian scientists and officials are pursuing the creation of a UNESCO Geopark at Nevado del Ruiz. Conversely, these visits reminded US park officials that the volcano over which they hold jurisdiction has societal relevance on many levels including its potential to impact nearby communities and urban areas.

Colombian scientists note that Nevado del Ruiz does not respect geographical borders or political boundaries. Between 25 and 29 August 2014, they held the first “Intercambio Regional Nevado del Ruiz: Departamentos de Caldas y Tolima” during which field visits to both sides of the volcano provided opportunities to discuss the hazards, mutual systems of communication, and how they could improve coordination among scientists, decision makers, emergency managers, and the public. Like the 2013 Binational Exchange, this regional exchange involved personnel from regional and municipal governments, the Red Cross, fire departments, and the national park, among others.

During the 2013 Binational Exchange, New Armero/Guayabal mayor Mauricio Cuellar Arias and others expressed a hope that memorialization and tourism at Armero would develop beyond tours of the ruins. He foresaw tourism as a reminder to future generations about the past and as a motivator for preparedness, as well as a way to boost local revenues. Around 2013, he initiated development of a new museum and park dedicated to the memory of the approximately 23,000 or more people lost during the 1985 lahar disaster and to the need for long-term risk mitigation. This city block-sized park is named the Omaira Sánchez Memorial Park, in memory of the 13-year old girl who perished from entanglement in mud and debris. Later, the Mayor dedicated the museum and surrounding park, with a statue of Omaira Sánchez that reminds visitors of the courage of that small girl and of her community. In 2018, the SGC developed state-of-the art exhibits there, which illustrate Nevado del Ruiz hazards, types of volcanic phenomena, and monitoring devices (Fig. 9). The Armero House exhibit narrates the history of “avalanches” (lahars). It tells the story of the city and its people before, during and after the disaster of November 1985. Within it, the SGC presents the Nevado del Ruiz hazard map and a photographic exhibition that illustrates the volcanic risk in the region. In December 2018, the Omaira Sánchez Memorial Park was placed under the administration of a state-run organization to ensure its continuance. Several kms away at the ruins of Armero, staff at the new Centro de Visitantes de Armero (CVA) help visitors to understand the tragedy.

Fig. 9
figure 9

SGC staff post at the new museum building at Omaira Sánchez Memorial Park in Armero-Guayabal, Colombia. New exhibits depict volcano monitoring instruments, and geology and volcanic risk of the region

Local artist and organizer Hernán Dario Nova, is creating a series of stele monuments, each one depicting the ambience of a former neighborhood within Armero. Near the center of the old city, where in 1985 Pope John Paul comforted people in the wake of the disaster, this artist also has created a memorial containing 25,000 small stones in commemoration of lost souls, with hopes of keeping the families of Armero alive in memory.

When all of these relatively recent advances in memorialization are considered, an important realization emerges, which is yet to be proven. The first generation of survivors and eyewitnesses who had personal losses as children, now as adults, possess personal motivation and are in positions of power to set policy and establish venues for disaster memorialization, hazard mitigation, and education. One might wonder if, after this generation has passed, the potential for mitigation policies and memorialization will decline. Hopefully not, if efforts such as the 2013 Binational Exchange are truly and fully successful.

The 2013 binational exchange inspires additional inter and intra-nation exchanges

Successes of the 2013 Mount Rainier/Nevado del Ruiz Binational Exchange provided broad momentum and served as a catalyst for funding of later mostly smaller, thematic binational exchanges. While some were unrelated to the concerns of the 2013 binational exchange, overlap particularly with the 2017 binational exchange likely reinforced momentum of the 2013 binational exchange.

Commemorating the 2015 30th anniversary of the Nevado del Ruiz eruption

Four US scientists and one county-level emergency manager visited Colombia to observe commemorations in Caldas and Tolima, to attend the preliminary opening of a Nevado del Ruiz-focused museum alluded to in 2013, and to demonstrate international support for mitigation efforts.

Sharing educational resources

An April 2016 trip took five US participants to Colombia and introduced staff members from volcano parks and emergency management in the US to their counterparts in Colombia. In July 2016, two visiting Colombian classroom educators and two observatory-based educators joined US participants at the Mount Rainier—Living with a volcano in your backyard teacher workshop to explore options for modifying US classroom activities for use in Colombian classrooms. A November 2017 trip to Colombia by three US participants explored options for a Colombian national volcano curriculum (since accomplished). In May 2017 Colombian visitors to the US observed a Nevado del Ruiz 1985 disaster-inspired lahar evacuation drill of the Orting School District. In February 2018 five US participants attended Colombia’s fourth biannual gathering of teachers and students for risk reduction in volcanic regions (Bienal Nacional de niños, niñas y jóvenes que viven en zonas de riesgo volcánico), and observed students demonstrate new Colombian classroom activities, some based upon US products.

Helping emergency management

During 2015 an exchange was held for staff and officials associated with Long Valley caldera in California and counterparts who addressed Chaitén Volcano in Chile (Pierson et al. 2017). The June 2016 Binational Exchange brought three Colombian representatives and USAID staff from Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica to the US to observe the Cascadia Rising multi-state earthquake response activity and use of the Nation’s incident command and National Incident Management Systems (NIMS). During April 2017, emergency managers, a state-level geologist, and a teacher visited the Nevado del Ruiz region and witnessed progress made on commemoration of the 1985 lahar disaster. In October 2018, a joint delegation of ten Ecuadorian and Colombian emergency managers attended a table-top exercise of volcano response plans for Mount Baker volcano. Mount Baker is located near the US/Canada border, and response to volcanic unrest there presents challenges similar to those posed by volcanoes near the border of Ecuador and Colombia. Lastly, a delegation of ten US emergency managers visited Ecuador in June 2019.

Supporting volcano parks

During the April 2016 trip to Colombia, participants from the US and Colombia visited Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados and observed opportunities for creation of a UNESCO Geopark and potential interpretive opportunities. Participants also visited the Omaira Sanchez Museum. In May 2017, eight emergency managers and staff members of SGC, along with economic development, park, and museum colleagues visited the US to improve their knowledge of park-community tourism partnerships, exhibit building, and disaster memorialization efforts in support of their efforts to create a UNESCO-recognized Geopark. According to the Shimabara Declaration (UNESCO 2019), education about our dynamic planet in geoparks is a most effective way to help local communities understand how to coexist with nature which occasionally generates geohazards. Cooperation among local people, scientists, the tourism industry, municipalities and Nations is indispensable for geoheritage conservation, education, tourism, and the sustainable development of geoparks and local communities.


During the 2013 Binational Exchange and 6 years hence, participants collectively showed indications of learning within all four stages of Kolb’s learning cycle. Participants in both nations are engaged in Kolb's 'active experimentation' with risk reduction measures. They are creating life-long learning opportunities with partners in schools and geoparks; are engaged in relationship building that promotes community involvement in mitigatin measures and belief in its efficacy. There is a sobering appreciation for the challenges of recovery and the need to pre-empt disaster with policy making and preparations.

Several key elements may have contributed to the 2013 Binational Exchange rising above being solely a fascinating journey abroad. A solid foundation was set because 1) the binational exchange fit squarely into the humanitarian mission of USAID and therefore was fundable; 2) organizers in both nations shared some familiarity and trust and recognized mutual benefits; and 3) each nation had readily identifiable hazard stories to tell and risk reduction lessons to offer.

Binational Exchange agenda organizers approached trip planning with intention. They 1) provided a pre-trip presentation about the 1985 tragedy at Nevado del Ruiz, and ‘recommended readings’ such as Voight (1990) and Hall et al. (1992); 2) requested that participants document the trip and their insights; 3) chose combinations of participants with demonstrated initiative who they perceived would work together during crises; 4) arranged a trip agenda germane to perceived or stated learning needs; 5) developed social events that promoted socialization; and 6) maintained discussions with participants concerning post-trip follow-up actions.

Participants 1) remained engaged in observations and asked insightful questions; 2) participated in intra-group discussions during the trip concerning applications back home; 3) post-trip, maintained social connections and sought ways to implement what they had learned; and 4) some participants aided the hosting of later binational exchanges, thereby reliving and reinforcing lessons learned during the 2013 experience.

Some positive feedback mechanisms further enhanced effectiveness. Post-trip interactions helped each group to maintain a sense of personal accountability regarding intentions to act. The desire to help with ‘putting on a good show’ during later exchanges was of itself a motivating force for mitigation. When one counts the number of people in both nations touched directly by professional involvement in the 2013 Binational Exchange, they must include dozens of emergency personnel, elected officials, park managers, educators, and the news media. This does not include the tens of thousands of people whose safety may be enhanced by participants’ post-trip mitigation efforts. Several US participants contend that the visit to a different culture touched not just the intellect, but their hearts and that the trip was personally transforming.

One challenge to the legacy of a binational exchange is that professional people change jobs. Multiple members of the 2013 US delegation have transferred to other jobs or retired. The hope of all is that the momentum generated by the exchange will continue to stimulate work in volcano risk reduction.

Binational exchanges are not one-time-fix-all events but are an augmentation to training events in the homeland, including volcano-crisis trainings, emergency coordination plan development and exercising, and participation in homeland and international preparedness conferences. The binational exchange concept is transferable to other situations. Binational exchanges might have most impact when they address high-impact/low frequency events for which officials have minimal experience. Effectiveness is reinforced by post-trip continuance of relationships and sharing of memories. It is relationships that sustain memories, which in the end, can promote long-term vigilance. The 2013 Colombia-US Binational Exchange adds credence to the notion that we do not need to be passive and distant observers but can learn from the past and make improvements.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.



Community based disaster risk reduction


Centro de Visitantes de Armero


Washington Emergency Management Division


Emergency Operations Center


Federal Emergency Management Agency


International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior


Joint Information Center


Mobile Operations Center


National Incident Management System


Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance


Vulcanological and Seismological Observatory of Manizales


Servicio Geológico Colombiano


Thematic, organized, relevant, entertaining


Risk Management of Caldas Unidad Departamental de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres


Unidad Nacional para la Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres


United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization


US Agency for International Development


US Geological Survey


Urban Search and Rescue


Volcano Disaster Assistance Program


Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management


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Authors' information

All authors were part of the traveling groups in Colombia and the US.

Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.


This project was supported by the US Agency for International Development Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA).

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CD developed and implemented the scheme for interviews, made analysis, and developed the manuscript. MC, GC, and JE researched histories. JM, AL RA, DB, SB, HB, FB, KB, JG, ZG, FG, CG, JQ, ER, JS, MS contributed observations and analyses. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Carolyn Driedger.

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Driedger, C., Calvache, M., Cortés, G.P. et al. Leveraging lessons learned to prevent future disasters—insights from the 2013 Colombia-US binational exchange. J Appl. Volcanol. 9, 3 (2020).

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