CAMP ZAMA, Japan – As more than 14,000 people gathered here for the installation’s Independence Day celebration, dozens of U.S. Army Garrison Japan personnel and partners worked behind the scenes to ensure everything went to plan.
For months, garrison staff held meetings and rehearsals to prepare for one of Camp Zama’s largest open-post events.
But once the fireworks were done and the visitors had left, Capt. Michael Clark, operations officer for the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security, or DPTMS, turned his focus to the next event.
On Aug. 5, the installation will again open its gates for Bon Odori, a traditional Japanese holiday that honors the departed spirits of one’s ancestors and which typically draws even more visitors.
“It was a bit of a tizzy coming back [to work] and knowing some of the things we had about 30 days to do,” Clark said.
While garrison staff had planned both events concurrently as they share similar aspects, the planning process can be fluid due to bureaucratic hurdles and last-minute changes.
“It’s never completely final,” he said. “The day of [the Independence Day event], we were changing things.”
Throughout the year, large events like these will have every garrison directorate involved to handle numerous moving pieces, including close coordination with Japanese partners.
Clark and others at DPTMS corral the experts from these organizations to attend meetings and achieve certain benchmarks to have everyone on the same page.
The latest event, for instance, had roughly 50 garrison staff and dozens more partners and volunteers help it become a success.
“We’re more of the cat herders,” he said. “We’re the coordination effort, because there are so many big pieces that take place.”
Planners often lean on longstanding partnerships, such as those with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and local emergency services, to boost medical and security plans.
Clark, who also helped organize the Hawaiian Festival at Sagami General Depot in April, believed the cooperation of Japanese visitors who attend these events is beneficial as well.
“We can’t do the things we do without those partnerships,” he said. “The support that we get from the local community is what makes these big events a success.”
By leveraging its partnerships, U.S. Army Medical Department Activity–Japan held its largest bilateral medical operation in recent years during the latest open-post event, said Stephen Matthews, its medical emergency manager.
MEDDAC–J manages an outpatient care clinic, but it is not equipped to provide medical coverage for these types of events, he said.
To bolster its capacity, the unit requested support from the JGSDF’s Eastern Army, which provided a field medical capability that included a tent with air conditioning, four patient care beds, assessment equipment and refrigerators to store medication. A doctor, nurses and other medics from the JGSDF also assisted.
Matthews said the capability, along with help from U.S. Army and Japanese first responders and American Red Cross volunteers, made the garrison better prepared for an emergency situation.
“We did not have to activate an ambulance response,” he said, “and I think that’s because we were equipped properly to be able to treat and recover everybody that came to our tent or was presented as a patient during the open-post event.”
While coordinating with several agencies was a little challenging, Matthews said the operation still provided a rare, valuable experience for about 30 medical personnel who supported the event.
“These are fantastic opportunities for organizations, which would be required to work together during a disaster or crisis, to actually practice these operations in a real-world environment,” he said.
Matthews said there will be a similar effort for the upcoming Bon Odori Festival. And while there weren’t any severe injuries in the last event, it doesn’t hurt to be over-prepared, he said.
“This is our dry run for Bon Odori,” he said. “It’s always better to have more resources and not need them.”
When it comes to security at these events, several military police officers work alongside gate guards and JGSDF members to screen visitors and conduct walking patrols in the area to protect the installation and those attending. Military working dog teams will also sweep the area before and during the events.
In addition, the Directorate of Emergency Services will coordinate with security personnel for any potential ambulance response and will have firefighters on call.
One of the safety challenges that public health officials handle is inspecting the food that will be dished up at events.
The Independence Day celebration had more than 20 food vendors, and each one had to be inspected multiple times before it could serve customers.
“Most people don’t understand that from start to finish the Army has a process to inspect the source of the food that the vendors have and that normally starts like six months out,” Clark said.
As part of any event, members of the garrison’s Safety Office will also join the fire inspector to ensure all vendors are compliant with safety standards, said Sean Gilmore, a safety specialist.
Hot and humid weather that is common during the summer events is a safety issue, too, and Gilmore reminds visitors to stay hydrated to prevent heat-related injuries.
The Independence Day and Bon Odori events can pose another possible risk with the fireworks displays that cap off those celebrations. The Safety Office works closely with the contractor and other directorates to develop plans that mitigate potential hazards.
In the last event, the fireworks show had more than 230 pounds of fireworks, including almost 1,500 mortar rounds, launched from the parking lot of Building 101.
Gilmore oversaw the setup to confirm protocols were followed and no visitors came near the restricted area.
While fireworks are not high explosives, they can still cause significant damage. If fired incorrectly, for instance, the shockwave can blow windows out of a building, damage a person’s eardrums or even their internal organs if they are too close.
Since fireworks are electronically initiated, there is the risk of static electricity setting off mortar rounds prematurely. To prevent this, barricades are set up to keep visitors away from the launch site and the contractor team will wear cotton rather than synthetic material that can induce static electricity.
“You don’t want to have an accident,” Gilmore said, adding he was not aware of any show here that caused significant injuries or damage.
Despite the months of planning and coordination these events demand, organizers said the end result is worth the time.
Gilmore said the events build stronger relationships and allow visitors to better understand the U.S. Army’s mission in Japan.
“It brings the [local community] onto the base, so they can see that ... we’re friends and we live here, too,” he said.
For Clark, he doesn't mind if the visitors don't notice the efforts of those working tirelessly to ensure a safe and secure event.
"We try to make events go as seamless as possible," he said. "And if our visitors can enjoy themselves, unaware of whatever issues we may be tackling, then we did our job."