NORTHCOM Agency Helps Civil Authorities Prepare For WMD Events

By Gerry J. Gilmore, American Forces Press ServiceJanuary 11, 2007

WASHINGTON, Jan. 10, 2007 - A joint U.S. military organization headquartered in Virginia regularly coordinates with state and local emergency preparedness agencies to prepare for potential new terrorist attacks on the homeland and other catastrophic events, the organization's commander said here yesterday.

Joint Task Force Civil Support helps coordinate federal efforts to help civil authorities prepare for and manage the effects of possible terrorist attacks on the homeland involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or other high-explosive weapons, Army Maj. Gen. Bruce E. Davis, the task force's third commander, said at the second-annual Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear conference in Vienna, Va.

Davis said his organization, created in October 1999, also assists federal, state and local authorities in reviewing emergency plans and gauging various resources necessary to respond to possible major events like terror attacks, disease outbreaks and other contingencies.

Federal, state and municipal authorities nationwide have lists of potential major contingencies and have established plans, identified personnel and earmarked other resources that would be committed to each type of event, Davis said.

"This is a dynamic list, and each and every year they are updating (the list)," he said.

In the event of a catastrophic event, special teams of on-call military and civilian technicians would be sent to respond to and assess what is needed to respond to the emergency, save lives and mitigate the aftermath, Davis said. For example, decontamination missions would likely be ordered in the event of certain kinds of WMD attacks, he said.

"Anything we can do to accelerate that response time, we try to do," Davis said.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America underlined the importance of the joint task force's mission, Davis said. The Fort Monroe, Va.-headquartered organization was made a subordinate of U.S. Northern Command after NORTHCOM was stood up Oct. 1, 2002.

Headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., U.S. NORTHCOM plans, organizes and executes homeland defense and civil support missions. When directed by the president or the defense secretary, NORTHCOM supplies military assistance to local authorities, including consequence management operations.

If there is another attack on America, a NORTHCOM-supplied team of experts would evaluate the situation, based on city and state emergency plans and capabilities, Davis said. That assessment can identify shortfalls between what's needed and what's available via local authorities and may become the basis of requests for DoD assistance, he said.

In addition, at least 42 weapons of mass destruction civil support teams have been stood up across the country. Each team consists of 22 highly skilled National Guard members trained to rapidly respond to assist civil authorities during domestic WMD incidents. Congress has authorized a total of 55 such teams, enough to field one team in every state, territory and the District of Columbia.

Although it is widely believed that large U.S. military formations would be deployed to a disaster site within hours of an event, that's not necessarily so, Davis said. Civil authorities would be first to respond to a major emergency, he pointed out, noting that major DoD involvement likely wouldn't start arriving for a couple of days.

Also, in the past year JTF Civil Support has teamed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies in coordinating plans to respond to a potential flu outbreak, Davis said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other federal, as well as state and local agencies, also are involved in this effort, he said.

The National Guard and local law enforcement agencies are considered to be ideal responders to assist in potential quarantine and other missions in the event of a major disease emergency in the United States, Davis said. "That is a perfect mission for the National Guard and (civilian) law enforcement," he said.