JTF-CS hones response with exercise challenges

By Staff Sgt. Andy Stephens | Joint Task Force Civil Support Public Affairs | August 17, 2006

FORT MONROE, Va. – The scenario could be one of your darkest nightmares: a madman driven by an anti-American zealotry has shattered the peace of a major U.S. city. His weapon of choice? An aerosolized form of Y. Pestis bacteria, better known in medieval times as plague, and he has let it loose on America.

Welcome to Sudden Response 2006.

At Fort Monroe, Va., Joint Task Force Civil Support is writing – and rewriting – the way the U.S. military responds to such dire circumstances. In the Joint Planning Group, procedures and lines of communication are plotted and established that will save lives if the scenarios ever become reality. Exercises such as Sudden Response 2006 allow the Department of Defense to determine how military elements function in civil emergencies, what resources can be used, what are distractions and what must be avoided.

“The JPG’s mission is to rapidly assess and conduct planning for potential support to civil authorities in the event DoD assets are requested or directed by the Secretary of Defense,” said Maj. Jose Berrios, CBRNE planner for the JTF-CS Command Assessment
Element.

The “CBRNE” acronym captures the mission of JTF-CS in the proverbial nutshell; it stands for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and (high-yield) Explosive. Exercises such as Sudden Response 2006 deal with one or a combination of scenarios related to the CBRNE focus. The exercises gather data and use it to refine methods to address CBRNE situations that might occur in the real world; these methods use DoD resources in the most efficient way possible.

Scenarios of such scope and magnitude require extensive planning, the primary focus of the JPG. The JPG acts as a brain trust for U.S. Northern Command’s disaster response, a crucible where potential threats are boiled away to their natural conclusions, situations are stabilized and foundations are laid for the agency to begin recovery efforts. The process to get from Point A to Point B examines the “rules of the game,” limitations and challenges that define the threat and the response, as well as which and how many DoD resources are needed.

“You don’t send 10 fire trucks if you don’t have a fire,” Berrios said. “Every incident is a local incident. [JTF-CS is] just there to bring additional support based on the requests of civil authorities.”

A lead federal agency, usually the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Department of Homeland Security, will initially respond to any civil incident or disaster that happens in the United States, its territories and possessions, Berrios said. Data on the incident is shared with the JPG at Fort Monroe to determine what, if any, response DoD needs to muster to support that agency. The JPG’s assessment is then relayed up the chain to the JTF-CS commander, U.S. Northern Command, and eventually the Secretary of Defense. The factors that determine the DoD response can range from the initiating agency’s ability to respond and set up resources themselves to what extent infrastructure has been rendered inoperable. But whether 10 experts or 10,000 servicemembers are mustered, the JTF-CS role remains the same.

“Whatever we send forward is what state and local agencies will use,” Berrios said. “They drive the train on what we send downrange.”

The basic challenge JTF-CS faces in these exercises is understanding the CBRNE effects and the potential support requirements, which can change based on evolving situational awareness and local capabilities, Berrios said.

To illustrate this challenge using the Sudden Response 2006 exercise scenario, JTF-CS knows that the number of people infected with plague exceed the number of hospital beds in the affected city. Further complicating the situation is the “worried well” element. These are healthy people who are afraid they may be infected and flood the city’s medical infrastructure with false alarms, even going to hospitals to seek treatment and unintentionally coming into contact with people who really are contaminated.

“The ‘worried well’ are a byproduct of situations we train for,” said Mr. Paul Marcinko, deputy surgeon for JTF-CS. “We have to find the point where local resources would be overwhelmed and what their capabilities are. We are building reality into these exercises and updating the playbooks for the Command Assessment Element.”

Realistically refining the playbooks is the goal of exercises such as Sudden Response 2006, Marcinko explained. The JPG representatives must update the playbook with all of the scenario's potential issues and how each one would affect their counterparts in the field. "Worried well" citizens are one issue, but there are dozens more, and each is explored to its logical limit. The playbook explains how each issue was explored and becomes a resource for DoD civil disaster relief assistance efforts.

The playbook evolution also reflects improved response times. For example, Sudden Response 2006 is the first exercise in which JTF-CS had a cache of medical supplies on-site. In previous exercises, a biological warfare/chemical warfare cache was sent to Fort Monroe from nearby Langley Air Force Base, Va., when an incident occurred. But in the real world, JTF-CS needs the cache’s resources immediately upon notification of an incident. Having the cache at Fort Monroe increases efficiency immensely, Marcinko said.

“We need to establish casualty estimates now,” Marcinko said. "If you don’t estimate casualties properly, you can’t estimate accurately the resources needed to take care of them.”

If the JPG playbook spells out the secrets of winning the big game, then Sudden Response 2006 could be the Super Bowl. JTF-CS is the home team, applying its knowledge and expertise to overcome challenges posed by opponents.

"We work very diligently in all of this preparation and planning,” Berrios said, “so that, [if] a CBRNE event happens, we’ve thought through all the potential issues and problems so we can best assist and support the local authorities. We’re not in charge of the problem; we’re in charge of the forces that go in there to help civil authorities solve the problem.”