By Lisa Hunter, Mobile District, Public AffairsSeptember 29, 2017
MOBILE, Ala. -- It was a Saturday afternoon in September, a time when Joel Hendrix would usually be at his home settling in to watch Alabama college football. Instead, he, his wife Beth, two dogs and cat were driving 2,600 miles in five days from a 120-day assignment in the Army Corps' of Engineers South Pacific Division back to the South Atlantic Division, all the while sending emails and making phone calls as he closely monitored Hurricane Irma as it made landfall across Florida.
Hendrix, the Chief of the South Atlantic Division Readiness and Contingency Operations, and Marc Dumas, the Acting Chief, watched anxiously as Irma's path shifted, tracking up the western side of Florida.
Even though Hurricane Irma caused catastrophic damage across the division's footprint, Dumas, Hendrix, and his team of emergency managers prepped the division and its five districts before the storm and quickly coordinated the division's response and recovery efforts. Dumas' energetic confidence is the result of years of experience from combined regular training and exercises for emergency responses, including catastrophic hurricanes.
Some of the emergency managers' most comprehensive training was provided by Readiness Support Center, known as the RSC, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' headquarters asset aligned under the South Atlantic Division's Mobile District. The RSC is responsible for maintaining readiness for contingency operations across nine USACE divisions and the 43 districts under those divisions. The training unit provides a unified approach to emergency management training and execution support.
"We provide a full spectrum of training and emergency support to USACE," said RSC Director Kent Simon. "The RSC provides emergency management planning, training, project management and development and response support."
Simon will speak further on the RSC during a Warriors Corner presentation on Oct. 11 at 1:15pm at the upcoming Army Exhibit during the Annual Association of the Army Meeting and Exposition at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
"The goal of RSC training is to help emergency managers and other USACE personnel to be better prepared to protect lives and property, respond quickly, and assist with recovery from the disaster," Simon said. "The first time you prepare for a hurricane or other disaster should not be during a real disaster. The RSC provides realistic training at which the team can ask questions, sort out courses of action and come up with a plan that will be in place when they have to deal with a real disaster."
The RSC has provided extensive training to most if not all many of the USACE divisions and districts on plans, programs and equipment that every USACE emergency operations center uses, including on ENGLink, a command and control software, and HF, the national emergency management communications equipment. In addition, the RSC has trained several districts' emergency management teams to assist them in getting accredited by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program.
As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida, with Hurricanes Jose and Maria not far behind, the South Atlantic Division's emergency managers were deep into planning proactive actions. The managers ensured the evacuation of USACE personnel deployed to support FEMA in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida, which were in the path of the hurricane. They also leaned forward to plan response and recovery missions, like manning the Planning and Response Teams, and planning locations and manning for Recovery Field Offices.
"The RSC really helped us in preparing for these hurricanes," Hendrix said. "For our exercise planning and execution, the RSC took a broad outline of a hurricane that will make landfall and developed time-phased scenarios to drive our exercise play."
For exercises, the RSC develops evolving disaster scenarios that are time-lapsed to depict the stages of the disaster, employing a technology called SIM Suite. Using SIM Suite, the RSC develops a hurricane scenario that starts when the National Weather Service reports a hurricane is developing in the Atlantic that could impact the United States. The scenarios advance so that emergency managers can plan step-by-step what actions they will need to take to proactively protect assets before the storm hits and what assets they will need to have in position to work with the affected state, FEMA and other USACE elements to provide support.
The RSC developed scenarios on a 24-hour cycle to show the storm's progress. They developed questions for managers that would stimulate interaction from all of the entities, the National Weather Service, the state, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and USACE, Hendrix explained. The scenarios included television news-like vignettes to inject new information into the scenario. These vignettes drove the exercise play, helping the participants to more quickly understand the emergency scenario and then immerse themselves in the response.
"The exercise was just like what we did to respond to Hurricane Irma," Hendrix said. "The broad outline was a hurricane striking the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and then continuing east-northeast where it would make landfall in Florida."
As USACE districts continue to respond to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, one of the RSC's current missions is deploying the Deployable Tactical Operations Systems, known as DTOS. The systems are self-contained emergency command and control vehicles with two-person teams who are capable of deploying on very short notice. The DTOS teams can provide support without the need for office space or even available electrical power.
"We have five ECCVs deployed to Houston responding to the damage left by Hurricane Harvey and two others that are either already deployed or en route to various locations that are recovering from Hurricane Irma," Simon said.
From his office in Mobile District, Simon and his team orchestrate the DTOS vehicles' and teams' deployment. At the same time, Simon is assessing his hurricane exercise program, thinking of new scenarios and injects.
"Our intent is to keep training and providing exercise support," Simon said. "We know this won't be the last hurricane. It may not even be the last hurricane of the season. The training we provide helps emergency managers be better prepared. And, when you're dealing with life-and-death situations, being prepared is half the battle."