Army North hosts Northern Command complex catastrophe session
June 10, 2013
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FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (June 10, 2013) -- Military leaders at all levels and federal partner agencies met June 5, to participate in a one-day tabletop exercise, hosted by U.S. Army North (Fifth Army), in the historic Quadrangle, here.
General and flag officers from each of the armed services, top leaders representing the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, along with Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives, gathered to tackle different complex catastrophe scenarios that comprised the most serious crises imaginable and then discussed the concepts and challenges associated with U.S. Northern Command's role in the whole of government response to them.
The scenario the leaders were presented created a situation designed to escalate and expand -- to provide a complexity that would overwhelm local and state agencies individually and require federal agency involvement with the Department of Defense supporting the overall effort, said Maj. Chris Byrd, a civil support planner with the Army North operations section.
"A complex catastrophe is clearly defined by DOD as any natural or man-made incident, including cyberspace attack, power grid failure and terrorism," said Byrd, in citing DoD doctrine, "which results in cascading failures of multiple, interdependent, critical, life-sustaining infrastructure sectors and causes extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage or disruption severely affecting the population, environment, economy, public health, national morale, response efforts and/or government functions."
The elaborate scenario started with a massive earthquake rumbling throughout Southern California. The cascading effects that followed included mudslides, broken dams, fires, flooding and massive property damage, not to mention the potential loss of life, and turned a very bad situation into a worst-case scenario.
"This would be a national full-court press," said Gen. Charles Jacoby Jr., commanding general, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, of planning to cope with a situation of that caliber. "We would be mobilizing all the resources we have."
Maj. Gen. Perry Wiggins, deputy commanding general for operations, Army North, reinforced how severe such a crisis could be.
"This is a timing thing as well," Wiggins said, in reference to stepping in to assist when DOD forces are called upon. "We can't just run to the beat of the drum."
Cooperation and coordination become vital components to successfully dealing with a complex catastrophe situation.
Byrd also explained how cascading effects came into play and how the participants examined what would happen -- and what their response would be -- for wildfires caused by the quake. They also discussed how they would work with the National Interagency Fire Center.
"By themselves, they were already tough nuts to crack," Byrd said, of the individual crises that were part of the original scenario. "But these were important to how we would coordinate with the other federal agencies and in making sure we have the right resources on hand to help with the response."
He also said that after state and local authorities had reached their capacity in dealing with the previous disasters, adding in additional factors, to include the possibility of civil unrest, would require yet another federal agency to be brought in, such as the Department of Justice, to assist local authorities with that response.
"From this point on, we not only had to consider the event in California but the flow of forces and capabilities into the Pacific Northwest for handling the results of this incident," Byrd said. The effects, and everything that followed, were of a much greater magnitude than previously dealt with.
What they described may sound like a disaster movie script to many people, but the group members said they wanted to be sure they were as thorough as possible for what could happen. To do this, they "pushed the limits" of what they could potentially provide in the way of command and control as well as identifying the triggers and factors that would indicate the necessity of additional headquarters.
Jacoby stressed that even as unlikely as these possibilities might be, at least happening together, the participants must be ready for any eventuality.
"We deal with one-out-of-a-million problems, where the probability is low but the consequences are unacceptable," Jacoby said of North Command's mission. "What (Super Storm) Sandy taught was, while we may not have had a complex catastrophe, we could see it from there. We could see what cascading effects we could have across the region, such as with transportation or energy systems."
He said the DOD wants to take the great partnership it has with its fellow federal agencies like FEMA, NIFC and the Department of Justice, and apply this against the next order of problems.
"From our standpoint, (DOD is) very happy with our relationships and how things are going," Jacoby said. "Now we have to be prepared for the big one."
And walking away from the discussion with a greater understanding of how mission command changes as the situation develops during a complex catastrophe was one of the key points of the exercise.
"You have to stay forward looking in trying to see what can happen next," Byrd said. "Ultimately, we want to see the insights gained from a senior leader event like this to inform our contingency planning efforts."