May 5, 2006 —
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – The U.S. military command charged with coordinating Department of Defense disaster relief efforts is primed and ready for any disaster, including the upcoming hurricane season which officially starts June 1.
“I can’t imagine anything else we could do or should do,” Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told national, regional and local media attending the May 4 USNORTHCOM Hurricane Preparation Media Day. “We are fully operational, we are as ready as we can be for this upcoming hurricane season, as well as our response to any other natural or man-made disaster.”
While the media day provided an up-close look at USNORTHCOM’s processes and procedures for responding to catastrophic events, the purpose of the event was to enhance relationships with media prior to the command’s next big relief effort, said Mike Perini, USNORTHCOM director of public affairs.
“The media’s role is critical in informing the public of USNORTHCOM’s efforts (when requested or directed by the president or secretary of defense) to save lives, sustain lives and provide assistance in the aftermath of catastrophic storms,” he said.
Noting that the media was provided “unprecedented access and information” during the event, Perini said it was important to ensure the media understood the limitations that affect USNORTHCOM’s response time and effort. An emergency must exceed the capabilities of local, state and federal agencies or the military must have a unique capability before USNORTHCOM becomes involved in a supporting role to another federal agency.
As a result of the media day, “the media who attended are ahead of the game because they have a better understanding of our processes, procedures and limitations,” Perini said.
The event day showcased the new North American Aerospace Defense Command and USNORTHCOM Command Center which opened its doors in early September and serves as the commands “nerve center.” The center features workstations for 79 full-time “watch standers” who collaborate with 150 similar centers nationwide to provide the commander with real-time situational awareness. Other topics included unity of effort between USNORTHCOM and local, state and federal officials, the request for assistance process and interagency operations during a crisis.
The admiral referred to Hurricane Katrina as the “first-real acid test” for the command which was established Oct. 1, 2002.
“We learned a lot and we observed much,” Keating said. “We’re working really hard to take lessons observed and make sure they are lessons learned and mistakes not repeated.”
The admiral and his staff explained that new procedures are in place to reduce the command’s response time and improve communications and damage assessment.
“Prescripted mission assignments” for 18 common capabilities, including damage assessment, medical evacuation and distribution points, will significantly reduce the time it takes USNORTHCOM to get requested assets where they are needed, Keating said.
The “fill in the blank” mission assignments will “reduce the challenge to response” time by focusing on the type and location where the assistance is needed and letting USNORTHCOM determine the best resources to meet the specific mission, he said.
As for communications improvements, the command now owns a cell phone tower which will enhance communications among first responders. The “mobile comm farm,” which includes 100 cellular phones, can act as its own communication network in areas where a disaster has disabled existing communication lines.
USNORTHCOM has formed teams trained to go to where the damage is with a play list of critical infrastructure nodes and “put your eyes on” and report back with a damage assessment, Keating said.
The concept of exchanging business cards prior to a disaster has been a lynchpin since USNORTHCOM’s existence.
“We need links and understanding so our capability flows in harmony and is transparent to the citizens on the ground,” said Army Lt. Gen. Joe Inge, USNORTHCOM deputy commander. How it got there or where it came from is irrelevant, “they just need to know their needs were met.”
The admiral assured the media that the command has significantly improved its disaster relief processes and procedures since the last hurricane season without degrading the effectiveness of its primary mission of defending the homeland.
Keating noted that despite the command’s vigorous training exercise schedule and its involvement providing military support to civil authorities, USNORTHCOM hasn’t forgot about “job number one.”
“Deterring, preventing and defeating an attack … that’s our most important job and that’s what (USNORTHCOM) is all about,” Keating said.
USNORTHCOM’s will continue to hone its processes and procedures May 8-18 during Ardent Sentry, a bilateral exercise focusing on defense support of civil authorities as well as homeland defense. The primary objective of the exercise is to give federal, provincial, state and local authorities the opportunity to work together across a full spectrum of training opportunities to better prepare participants to respond to national crises.
Keating said the two-week exercise most likely will include hurricane, terrorist attack and pandemic influenza scenarios.
“It is not an open book test,” Keating explained. “It will be very aggressive; it will be very challenging for us, and that’s the point.”