By Sgt. 1st Class Jon SoucyMay 19, 2010
ARLINGTON, Va., (Army News Service, May 19, 2010) -- While hurricane season begins next month and runs until late November, the Army National Guard practices its emergency response procedures on a nearly year-round basis.
"We actually almost never stop (training)," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Bill Etter, director of domestic operations at the National Guard Bureau. "If you look at a hurricane season extending almost to November, as soon as that's over in January we're back at it (training) again."
Part of that training and preparation includes working out details with other agencies.
"This past January, we had a week-long workshop where we rolled our sleeves up and got a lot of stuff done," said Etter, adding that it included the states, the National Guard Bureau and U.S. Northern Command.
During the workshop, available Guard assets were identified in each state and plans were made that matched those capabilities with what would be needed should hurricanes of varying strengths make land fall, said Etter.
"We developed a matrix for each state and who was going to actually backfill that capability gap in the event there was a large-scale hurricane," he said. "We also brought in the United States Coast Guard and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Department of Homeland Security for an outbrief at the end ... so everybody had an awareness of what we have and what we need (for) very high winds or a very large hurricane."
A second workshop was held a few months later. "That was an attempt to make sure that everyone knew that we built a plan, and here's our plan and everyone is on the same sheet of music," said Etter.
Last year was a relatively light hurricane season, but 2008 included several back-to-back storms that hit several states.
While responding to so many storms at once may have presented many challenges, it also gave insights on how to improve things for future responses.
"We have not only lessons learned but lessons applied," said Etter. "It's great to study, but we actually want to go back and adjust and keep raising the bar for our response."
Improved ways of ensuring needed supplies get to where they need to go is one of these lessons learned.
"We're trying to concentrate on in-transit visibility," said Etter. "We want to make sure if water is going to an area, that the amount of water we think is going to arrive will actually do that. By the same token, we don't want to send 10 times the amount of water needed to one area (with) another area getting no water."
This can be accomplished by using technology normally associated with tracking elements on the battlefield, such as the Blue Force Tracker, which uses global positioning system technology to display the locations of units and vehicles.
"You can see where the trucks are, where the airplanes are and where the forces are moving around making sure they're getting there at the right time," said Etter.
Medical evacuation procedures have also been refined. "One of the difficult things ... is aero-medical evacuation (when) a very large storm hits a coastal area," said Etter adding that the difficulty comes from pinpointing where the hurricane is going to hit.
"You can't evacuate everyone if it's say a 120-mile wide swath," he said. "You have to wait until that cone narrows."
Being able to better forecast the projected path of a hurricane has made that less of a challenge.
"Forecasting has improved significantly over the past 10 years, so 48 hours out, you can get a pretty good idea of where one of these things is going," said Etter. "But you have a very small window where the winds get too high and you can no longer fly these aircraft out.
"It's something where a decision has to be made very quickly, very accurately and a very focused effort has to occur," he said.
Part of that accurate and focused response also comes from working with other agencies, said Etter.
"I think the partnerships have improved greatly," he said. "I've been living and breathing this for about three-and-a-half years and it's never been better. We try and view this as a team effort. It's not just a National Guard effort but rather a whole-of-government effort."
And that includes the local and state governments, who have their own hurricane response plans.
"We've been able to get the next level up where we bring all these state plans under a common review and kind of do a best-of album and get those best practices back to the states so that every state becomes a little bit better," said Etter. "We want to make sure they have the benefit of not having to go through lessons learned."
(Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy writes for the National Guard Bureau.)