FORT LEWIS, Wash. (May 9, 2008) - Phones started ringing shortly after 4 p.m. Pacific Daylight Savings Time on May 1, locally and across the country and Canada, advising emergency response professionals of a notional terrorist incident in Seattle. Part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct had buckled and given way as a result.
National Level Exercise 02-08 had begun.
Close to 2,500 people of all types - senior staff members at U.S. Northern Command in Colorado and Army North in San Antonio, Texas - made their way to Fort Lewis along with local first responders from the region to treat injured role players and minimize the damage of a chemical spill. Individuals with special skills and small groups in preconfigured response cells found their way to Western Washington to take part.
Fort Lewis was designated as the Base Support Installation for the hands-on part of the exercise, named Ardent Sentry, which ends today.
The Leschi Town urban training site served to replicate downtown Seattle to avoid congestion or panic in the state's largest city. National Guard men and women from across the state, trained as chemical spill and decontamination experts, raced to Leschi Town and by May 2, had taken control of the chemical spill site.
"There are a lot of different aspects at different venues," said Harold Nelson, chief of the Training Support Branch of the Fort Lewis Directorate of Plans, Training and Mission Support. Nelson's office was responsible for focusing the mammoth coordination effort. "One of the key ingredients or missions is the communication, leadership and command and control from the local first responders to the Guard response, the state response, and then incorporating national federal-level assets."
From that most esoteric mission, Fort Lewis personnel took charge of the most basic part of the exercise also, serving as BSI to take care of the hour-to-hour needs of the force streaming onto post. The World War II-vintage barracks on North Fort housed the members of the task force.
"We are in the process of receiving them, staging them, billeting them, feeding them," Nelson said, "providing logistic support to them so that that task force can accomplish their mission."
The same mental processes, from planning emergency response to mundane housing and feeding, would take place among I Corps and garrison staff members whether the disaster was an earthquake or a terrorist incident, he said.
Once the spill at "Seattle" was neutralized, a follow-on incident took place in Whatcom County north of Everett, an overturned tanker requiring some of the same responders to react and race northward to meet new ones from first-response agencies near the Canadian border.
"We will also have increased medical play called Ultimate Caduceus, which is the strategic movement of patients to available hospitals outside the vicinity," Nelson said. "In other words, if our hospitals were all full here because of casualties, where would we take casualties'"
Though still in the middle stages of the event, Nelson gave the complex undertaking high initial marks, in both the exercise play and real-world coordination.
"It's been very well organized," he said. "The initial conversations I had with anybody in NORTHCOM were back in July ... when the idea to hold this at Fort Lewis was conceived. Since that time we've been working the issues because this is an exercise and Fort Lewis does have real-world missions preparing Soldiers to go to war."
Scheduling a suitable training site and arranging for logistical support took much of the next 10 months, having to work around the busy training schedules of Fort Lewis units preparing for war.
"We needed to preposition assets, whereas if this was an actual emergency, we would get no notice and just have units come in," Nelson said. "Since it's an exercise, we precoordinated assets, such as Leschi Town so we don't have units out there to deconflict. There are units at Old Madigan, units using Gray Army Air Field."
Ardent Sentry is the second Fort Lewis staff exercise conducted in six weeks, having hosted a command post exercise March 26 and 27 that tested similar coordination efforts.
Don Kramer: