FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii -- Terrorism, hurricanes or typhoons, floods and influenza provide many leadership challenges. In that Pacific region, Joint Task Force Homeland Defense (JTF-HD) is responsible for responding to these and other emergencies.
This fact was never more evident than following the devastation caused by the tsunami that roared into American Samoa Sept. 29. Within minutes of receiving word of an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami in American Samoa, elements of the U.S. Army Pacific were alerted, including JTF-HD.
"That's our mission. That's what we do," said Lt. Col. Robin Lau, JTF-HD chief of operations. "Once we were aware of the situation, we activated our Joint Operations Center 24 hours a day," added Lau.
The 8.4 magnitude earthquake struck near the Samoa Islands region causing the destruction along the eastern side of American Samoa, a U.S. possession. JTF-HD was activated shortly after receiving unofficial notice of the tsunami through the news media.
Working in unison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), other federal agencies and civil authorities and various Department of Defense (DoD) elements, JTF-HD coordinated much of the relief effort from the operations center here near downtown Honolulu.
"Our staff did a tremendous job," said Col. Chels Chae, U.S. Army Pacific deputy chief of staff, Contingency Command Post and JTF-HD Chief of Staff. "We tasked them with standing up the operations center in a very short period of time and pushed them daily with difficult missions - and they excelled," Chae added.
The JTF-HD staff communicated daily with the various elements across the Joint Operations Area (JOA) including the Defense Coordinating Element (DCE) on ground in Samoa, FEMA representatives in Washington D.C. and Oakland, Calif., the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, elements of the Hawaii National Guard in Samoa and more.
"It was a total team effort," said Lau. "I was not only impressed with our staff and the way they handled the challenging situation," he added, "but also with the other services which included FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Hawaii National Guard, U.S. Army Reserve and everyone else who responded in this effort."
JTF-HD personnel were not limited to performing their duties in Hawaii. Two staff members deployed to American Samoa.
"We sent two people downrange on the very first day," said Maj. John Parrish, JTF-HD executive officer.
"We sent Amir Abdmishani and Michael Machado to American Samoa to assess damage, conduct analysis and act as a liaison to the Defense Coordinating Officer (DCO) and National Guard unit." "We are charged with coordinating DoD support to civil authorities during a natural or man-made disaster," said Master Sgt. Paul Price, JTF-HD senior enlisted soldier.
"We also support federal, state and local governments to coordinate and execute a response to a disaster."
JTF-HD is part of the National Response Framework (NRF), formerly known as the Federal Response Plan (FRP) and is primarily responsible for defeating terrorist and other asymmetric threats and overcoming disasters involving Hawaii and U.S. territories and possessions within the Pacific Command area of responsibility. It is also responsible for conducting Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations for all hazards in the region.
"Responding to, preparing to respond and response training for these events make up the bulk of our workday," said Mel Garcia, JTF-HD deputy chief. "Our efforts are crucial because of the damage inflicted by terrorists and natural disasters," he added.
JTF-HD recently concluded their two primary exercises (Makani Pahili and Lightning Rescue) and is currently planning for the 2010 versions of these exercises.
"Conducting realistic exercises are essential tools to prepare our staff and its interagency partners to immediately respond in a crisis" said Pete Hoskam, JTF-HD intelligence planner. He added, "We learn to work together, under pressure, during these demanding events".
Col. David Norton, JTF-HD chief officer, amplified these comments with his training philosophy, "we are constantly challenging our disaster and security preparedness efforts."
In addition to executing land-based operations to defeat terrorist threats to the homeland and conducting DSCA operations for all hazards including responding to and recovering from natural or man-made disasters, JTF-HD also provides Subject Matter Expert Exchange (SMEE) teams to provide training and expertise in the region.
"The SMEE program only enhances our role in disaster preparedness exercises such as Makani Pahili and Lightning Rescue. Efforts such as these are crucial to meeting the trials of the future," Garcia explained.
"We facilitate a tiered response, where incidents are managed at the lowest jurisdictional level possible," Norton stated. "Disasters are increasingly costly and that's one reason why disaster preparedness and management has never been so important."
JTF-HD began operations in 2004. The Army plays the lead role, but the task force is comprised of all branches of the military.
The SMEE seminars are part of a five-step process to improve incident management of its state and local counterparts. The SMEE process includes site and facility surveys (leading to disaster plan reviews), gap analyses (pinpointing resource and skill shortages), major exercises (testing the disaster plans).
Homeland Defense against a wide range of asymmetric threats to include; terrorists, cyber attacks and transnational criminal organizations, requires a coordinated federal and Department of Defense (DoD) effort.
Throughout the Pacific, from Hawaii to Guam and Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, JTF-HD plays many homeland security roles.
The Commander of U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith, Hawaii, designated JTF-HD as the Homeland Defense coordinating agency between DoD and the civilian authorities in the Hawaii, Guam and the other local governments. Working closely with Department of Homeland Security and the military organizations in the Pacific, JTF-HD develops a Common Operating Picture and coordinates implementation of a comprehensive Critical Infrastructure Program.
"We can learn a great deal from past disasters, but we dare not wait for another to ensure that we are prepared for the future," said Garcia.
Ever since President Jimmy Carter merged many of the disaster preparedness agencies into FEMA in 1979, in order to centralize federal emergency functions, the United States has been responding to various disasters across the nation.
Following the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2001, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 further centralized federal emergency functions and integrated FEMA with 22 other agencies and offices into the Department of Homeland Security.
One of the most important developments in recent years was the disaster management legislation passed in the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act (of 2006), which significantly reorganized FEMA and closed gaps that were revealed during the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"The NRF is a guide to how the nation conducts all-hazards response," Hoskam said. "It was written primarily for elected and appointed government officials and NGO leaders. After the terrorist attacks in 2001 the demand for a better understanding of incident management and response principles led to the creation of the NRP," he added.
Receiving DSCA and other federal assistance during disasters requires that certain stipulations be met.
The first major step is that a declaration of emergency by the president must be established, pursuant to the Stafford Act. In addition, JTF-HD must meet further requirements to conduct DSCA operations. But this doesn't prevent JTF-HD from conducting various other operations in order to facilitate interagency operability and fulfill its mission.
"We currently assist in planning and conducting the two annual exercises, Makani Pahili and Lighting Rescue," said Garcia. "Makani Pahili, means 'great winds' in Hawaiian and is hosted by the state of Hawaii. It is designed to prepare responders for the hurricane season by simulating a hurricane hitting the Hawaiian Islands. The importance of such hurricane preparation was made clear to Hawaiian authorities in 1992 when Hurricane Iniki slammed into the island of Kauai, causing nearly $3 billion in damage."
The Lightning Rescue exercise has generally prepared responders for the threat of pandemic influenza by simulating an inbound airliner carrying passengers that are suspected of being exposed to the Avian Flu. "This year's exercise focused on a present 'real-world' event, the possibility of the H1N1 virus spreading throughout the region," said Norton.
JTF-HD's Makani Pahili and Lightning Rescue exercises, along with its SMEE seminars and other operations, prepare responders for disasters and facilitate interoperability between the organizations and agencies that play roles in the incident management process. JTF-HD sets a prime example of how in the last decade, as a result of devastating disasters such as Hurricane Iniki and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, improvement of our nation's incident management systems has been substantial.
"We've come a long way. Disaster preparedness in the United States has improved dramatically from individual agencies and organizations to the all encompassing Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and even our own JTF-HD," Garcia concluded.

Page last updated Thu October 8th, 2009 at 00:00