No one wants to envision being trapped in a natural disaster, but the historic tornadoes that ravaged Alabama in 2011 proved that it can happen -- and that Redstone Arsenal needs to be prepared.
Last week, multiple organizations participated in a two-day, full-scale emergency exercise, with the scenario being that two tornadoes touched down on the installation, causing widespread damage and casualties.
"We feel that we have some of the finest emergency responders and planners that you could find anywhere and it's humbling to see them in action," Garrison commander Col. Bill Marks said. "They plan and train continuously for real world situations and it was great to see the awesome teamwork among the different local agencies."
The first tornado scenario impacted the Army Materiel Command headquarters and the Sparkman Center on Martin Road, while the second scenario was a tornado touching down east of The Summit and damaging several homes in the housing part of installation. As part of the exercise, there were three deaths and 11 injured personnel. On day one, emergency crews and their responses were evaluated, while day two saw the converting of Army Community Service into a Family Assistance Center at the Pershing Welcome Center, and a mass casualty exercise at Pagano Gym. Every effort was taken to make the exercise and scenario as realistic as possible, from actors portraying injured people to Marks briefing media in a mock press conference.
Full-scale emergency exercises are not a new occurrence at Redstone. In 2014, the installation underwent an active shooter exercise on post. Installation Emergency Operations Center's Shannon Lott and Mark Olson served as co-lead planners for last week's exercise and due to the scale of the event, began planning the tornado scenario in August 2014. Both were on staff at the IEOC during the 2011 tornadoes and used that experience to craft a believable scenario that would test the lessons learned four years ago.
"We interchange every year between a manmade threat and a natural disaster," Lott said.
The 10-member team was challenged by the large scope of last week's event. In addition to the organizations on post participating, Huntsville Hospital, Crestwood Medical Center, the Red Cross and six HEMSI ambulances were also involved in the exercise. For the first time, HEMSI personnel brought search and rescue dogs on post to contribute.
"The purpose of this event was to exercise all of Team Redstone, not just our internal assets, but civilian agencies also, to coordinate a reaction to a natural disaster," Marks said. "We have great support from the local community and if another event like the tornadoes of 2011 were to happen, I'm encouraged by the training and preparation that we've completed."
The exercise had many players and multiple moving parts. Army Community Service's Kathleen Riester served as the coordinator for the Family Assistance Center and said that they had four different phone lines open to field mock calls for assistance.
"We also train the supporting agencies on their responsibilities," Riester said. "We have had support from all of the different agencies, with the fire department being a huge asset to our exercise."
The second day also brought a mass care facility to Pagano Gym -- the first of its kind at Redstone. Lott said the Red Cross was instrumental in guiding them on creating the mass care center and that it was something they have been working on since the tornado outbreak of 2011.
One of the challenges examined during the exercise was how to move a 39,000-person workforce off-post without causing widespread traffic issues that might hinder personnel responding to an emergency. While Redstone Arsenal does have a fully functional fire and police department, all ambulances travel from off-post to respond to calls.
"The less traffic we have, the more availability we give the first responders," Olson said.
In addition to the logistics of moving the workforce, the flow of information was also tested in the exercise. Marks said leadership has a paramount responsibility to provide factual and timely information in the case of an emergency, but they are often in a race with social media, which can be an unreliable source.
While all organizations on post have plans and procedures in place to contend with natural disasters, last week's exercise provided an opportunity to test them and see what worked and what needed work. Lott and Olson stressed the importance of these types of exercises and that their success depends on as many participants as possible. Olson hopes for even more organization participation for the next exercise in 2016.
As the alerts that were issued to the workforce, media and public clearly proclaimed, last week's event was solely an EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE. But for many members of Team Redstone, the sirens that sounded as part of the drill quickly harkened back to those spring days in 2011, where multiple tornadoes brought devastation to surrounding communities and a loss of life across several states. While the tornado season has passed North Alabama for 2015 with no serious incidents, other areas in the United States were hit by tornadic weather earlier in the month.
"It can happen in real life," Lott cautioned. "People should be cognizant of how they can prepare for a tornado."