News: Prepared to protect
Story by Sgt. Edward Eagerton
CAMP DENALI, Alaska— When faced with dire circumstances, most people will resort to either a fight or flight mentality. How a person reacts is often dictated by whether or not they are prepared for the situation. In this light, first responders train to mitigate the instinct to run, and instead, learn to charge forward in the face of danger for the greater good.
For the National Guard, the defense in support of civil authorities mission remains one of the tenants of their organization. The DISCA mission means that in the event of natural disasters, the National Guard is one of the first responders activated to support the multitude of organizations in place to respond to those disasters.
Exercises Alaska Shield and Vigilant Guard-Alaska 2014 took place across the state, March 27 through April 2. It was the latest iteration of a comprehensive exercise involving the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, North America Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Transportation Command, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and many other organizations.
The Air and Army National Guard had approximately 1,150 Airmen and Soldiers participating from Alaska, Hawaii, Ore., Wash., Neb., Wis., Ariz., Calif., Nev., Idaho, Minn., N.D. and Utah.
“With Alaska Shield 2014, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 earthquake by replicating its significant damage and corresponding tsunami in order to educate and prepare participants for potential catastrophic events,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Katkus, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard and commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
VG-AK14 kicked off with a mock 9.2-magnitude earthquake that struck in Jonah Bay in Prince William Sound. Afterwards, simulated reports began filtering into participating organizations about the destruction in Anchorage and surrounding areas. In the exercise scenario, a tsunami ravaged coastal towns across Alaska following the earthquake.
Immediately, the wheels of the machine began to spin. The National Guard responded by sending out a recall, accounting for personnel and equipment to get an accurate picture of what resources they had available to contribute to the imminent relief effort.
An emergency operations center was stood up, housing personnel from numerous agencies in a central location to consolidate and streamline interagency coordination for the disaster response. The National Guard also stood up a joint operations center to coordinate Air and Army Guard assets.
Information filtered through the EOC and JOC to be analyzed and discussed by various agencies. This process then helped determine which unit could best support a specific need.
Within the scenario, the governor declared a state of emergency and activated the dual-status commander. Dual status commanders are authorized to command both federal and state forces, allowing the Department of Defense to achieve unity of effort and continuity of operations while increasing command flexibility for mission tasking.
The dual-status commander position was filled by Alaska Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Scott Wenke, commander of the 176th Wing, which is located on JBER.
“My job here over the next few weeks or months will be to unify all of our federal Department of Defense forces in uniform under one unified command to support the effort of our state and federal partners in recovery, life-saving and prevention of suffering within the state of Alaska as we dig our way out of this hole,” said Wenke at a mock press conference.
As the exercise scenarios kicked off, locations around the state were staged to replicate collapsed buildings, hazardous material spills, degraded communication capabilities, utility failures and mass casualties in need of triage.
In Anchorage, a rubble pile was used to simulate collapsed buildings, and train cars were used to simulate a derailed train. The National Guard’s 103rd Civil Support Team from Alaska and the 72nd CST from Nebraska combed the area, looking for chemical spills. Airmen with the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Civil Engineer Squadron practiced shoring up buildings with struts to maintain the structural integrity of damaged buildings to make it safe for search and rescue teams from the Anchorage Fire Department to search in the affected structures.
“It’s very nice to work with other agencies, not only another civil support team, but local fire departments and emergency managers,” said Tech. Sgt. Donovan Garcia, a team chief with the 72nd CST.
Members of Oregon and Hawaii’s National Guard Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Enhanced Response Force Package teams also worked at the rubble pile to practice extracting casualties, played by moulaged volunteers to bring realism to the event. Afterwards, the simulated victims were transported to a medical station there run by the Hawaii Air Guard’s 154th Medical Group for stabilization.
In Palmer, because hospitals were overwhelmed with damage or at full capacity, a request came in to set up a medical station at the Palmer Fairgrounds. The National Guard responded by sending Soldiers from the 207th Battlefield Support Company to establish an Alaska Medical Station. There, medical personnel from both civilian and government agencies worked to help sustain casualties as they came streaming in.
Within the exercise scenario, reports began filtering in about tsunamis hitting coastal areas, and communication with towns like Valdez and Cordova became degraded as utilities failed in the aftermath. With utilities and resources in short supply, requests for support flooded in.
Soldiers from Alpha Troop, 1st Battalion, 297th Cavalry (Reconnaissance and Surveillance Squadron) were sent to Cordova to assist in the distribution of water to affected citizens after the utility was damaged, causing local agencies to set up a desalinization machine to convert salt water into drinkable water. The Soldiers also worked to communicate updates and provide safety information with local residents.
In Valdez, a coalition of local, state and National Guard assets worked to restore communications capabilities so information about the needs and situation of the area could reach those tasked with controlling the response effort. A team from the Wisconsin National Guard’s 128th Air Control Squadron worked with Valdez Emergency Management to set up a Joint Incident Site Communications Capability at the Alaska National Guard’s Armory there.
“Our mission as a JISCC team is to provide communication and networking support from one organization to another — either local, state, military or federal, including FEMA,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Miller, a JISCC operator with the 128th Air Control Squadron, Wisconsin National Guard. “During a natural disaster, we link one type of communication with another. We set up antennas and satellite communications and talk across the world and provide telephone support to the local emergency officials.”
While communication capabilities were being restored in Valdez, elements from the Alaska National Guard’s 297th Military Police Company worked to provide security checkpoints at the city’s hospital, emergency operations center and at an alternate medical treatment facility operated by Arizona National Guard’s 996th Area Medical Support Company.
As the countless problems developed, the National Guard worked hand in hand with federal and state agencies through the night, reallocating assets, requesting additional support or supplies from agencies in other states, and working to distribute the supplies and efforts as efficiently as possible.
When the smoke finally cleared, the National Guard conducted after-action reviews to assess their performance in the overall effort. The process of reviewing data from exercises like VG-AK14 helps the National Guard refine their processes to better respond in the event of a real disaster.
“There is no question that Alaska was an ideal venue for this exercise, which tested our collective ability to share information among federal, state, local, tribal and other community organizations and respond accordingly,” said Katkus.