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Preparing for worst-case scenario

Tabletop exercise trains JBLM and regional officials in catastrophic emergency response

Northwest Guardian

Published: 02:52PM November 7th, 2013
Preparing for worst-case scenario

Jake Dorsey/Northwest Guardian

Department of Emergency Services emergency planner John FitzGibbon, center, facilitates the Incident Command table during the Tabletop Exercise Oct. 30 at the American Lake Conference Center.

Officials could say something terrible happened Oct. 30 at McChord Field and the Yakima Training Center, but not much else. The situation was fluid and the early information spotty.

Fortunately the terrorist active shooter was notional, part of a scenario playing out at Joint Base Lewis-McChord as emergency response training.

“The biggest challenge I see right now is that we’re going to have a whole lot more questions than we have answers,” said Public Affairs Officer Joseph Piek during the JBLM “Vigilant Warrior” Tabletop Training Exercise held at the American Lake Conference Center.

The exercise — devised by JBLM’s Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security’s emergency management branch — brought together representatives from dozens of military, federal, state and local agencies to figure out how to respond to catastrophic situations that could occur.

“We see the news everyday,” said Air Force Col. Anthony Davit, deputy joint base commander, who sat at the command control table. “This stuff happens.”

The scenario that launched 130 officials into action unfolded with chilling realism:At around 8 a.m., a gunman pulls a fire alarm at the McChord Field Exchange. He shoots and kills a couple people, then waits for firefighters to respond. He kills two firefighters after they enter the building, then takes a couple more hostage. He eventually is killed in a shootout with police, who safely retrieve the hostages.

As this happens, a second gunman, a Soldier, goes on a mass shooting at the YTC, killing about a dozen Soldiers and injuring a dozen more. He eventually takes his own life. Investigators, working off recent intelligence, determine that the gunmen are linked to a domestic terrorist group.

DPTMS officials agreed on a domestic terrorism scenario before the attack on the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Renee Johnson, the event coordinator with the DPTMS, said lessons from that shooting, as well as the Nov. 5, 2009 mass murder incident at Fort Hood, Texas, were used for this exercise.

“It’s a challenge to be heard”

This exercise was unique, Johnson said. It only was the second one that involved all of the various civilian agencies. Those included the FBI; Pierce County’s SWAT and medical examiner; emergency managers for Pierce and Thurston counties, and the American Red Cross. Many of those agencies have mutual-aid agreements with JBLM.

Agency representatives gathered around tables with specific duties: Incident Command, Emergency Operations Center (Operations and Support), Crisis Action Team, Family/Support Services and so on. Each table’s participants worked together to come up with a response, depending on the time phase of the incident: the first 15 minutes, up to three hours, then beyond three hours.

At the end of each phase, table participants considered several questions and went over their agency’s response plans with each other with the help of a facilitator at each table. DPTMS set up maps and projected goals onto screens around the room.

DPTMS wanted so many agencies, along with their response plans, at the exercise to identify issues and generate a large number of recommendations. “It’s a challenge to be heard at this,” she said. “It’s always a challenge.”

Davit said it’s necessary, however, to make sure everyone is on the same page before an event occurs. JBLM has adopted the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s incident response standards, and other agencies have done the same.

Difficulties still arise during the organized chaos of a serious incident, Davit said.

“We should all be talking the same language, we should all have the same command and control organization,” Davit said. “The difficulty I see is getting the folks who normally do a response day to day in a certain structure here on base, to meld into that new incident command system ... to make sure we respond accordingly with those civilian agencies.”

Thinking long-term

When the in-the-field exercise happens in December, everyone will be involved, Davit said, not just first responders or investigators. Counselors, medical staff, personnel in charge of compensating the operators of the Exchange for the damage the building suffers.

Considerations included what individual units would do — hide in place, evacuate, or some other response — and what the installations would do, including a complete lockdown.

Even the act of passing information from one group to another was a challenge. Johnson encouraged representatives to go to other tables if they needed information, but many were so engrossed in what they were doing, getting up wasn’t easy.

But forcing yourself to move and share information has to be done, Davit said, because incidents happen. That’s the utility of exercises like Vigilant Warrior.

“It’s a potential,” the deputy commander said. “The likelihood of it happening here at JBLM, thankfully, is low. But as responders, we owe it to the populace to be able to respond to that.”