January 03, 2013

Arizona prepares for America's most feared terrorism  threat, an improvised nuclear device detonated in a major metropolitan area.  Will the full scale training exercise be another  over­ the-top federal boondoggle or will the millions of dollars spent on the exercise actually hit the mark?  You'll be surprised at the answer.

At five in the morning on May 19th a semi tractor trailer rig sat at the Maverick truck stop just east of the Colorado River in the small town of Ehrenberg, Arizona.  From this location, Phoenix was just two and half hours away.  As planned, the semi looked pretty much like any one of 40 other refrigerated tractor trailer rigs sitting in the parking lot.  Except this one sat by itself at the back of the lot next to the open desert.  In the cab, a man leaned against the door behind the steering wheel and appeared to be sleeping but his hands nervously held a pistol. In the sleeper behind him, his co driver was also vigilantly awake.  Both were heavily armed and the truck was booby trapped several ways.  Outside, the trailer's refrigeration unit was noisy as it ran at high RPMs to support four flood lights inside the trailer, where a man and woman  placed the final panels on an industrial container that sat towards the front of the trailer.

Over the last year and a half  this well-financed and organized terrorists group had been smuggling highly enriched uranium and the components necessary to assemble an improvised nuclear device into the United States.  The scientists in the back of the truck were assembling the final triggering components and would soon follow the tractor trailer rig in a second car into the downtown Phoenix area. With both the truck and the bomb booby-trapped to explode if tampered with, the terrorists leave the truck in the downtown area and drive northwards  out of Phoenix towards interstate 40.   Thirty miles out of Phoenix, with a fanatical focus, one of the terrorists looks at his watch and then senses the bright flash coming from behind him.  His shoulders relax and he tells the driver once again to drive to Flagstaff.

"Sergeant,  I  got something  on my screen you need to see!  I  got a six- satellite composite view showing a high yield explosion in Arizona.  It's coming up in... Phoenix and it don't look small. Sir, do we have any explosion profile exercises going on?"

"Not that  I  know of Airman. Work your checklist.  I  got the Watch Commander on his way."

"Sir, the signature is coming up legit through the explosion confirmation  software.   It's putting it in downtown Phoenix as a weapons  grade nuclear explosion between 10 and 15 megaton. Sir, I keep looking for "This-Is-A-Drill" to pop up, but it's not there.  Holy crap, Sergeant, I  mean sir; I think someone just lit up Phoenix for real!"

The explosion is 5000 times greater than the truck bomb used to destroy the Murrah Federal building in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.  The impact on the population will be high. Within the first hour of the blast, damage is difficult to determine  due to the enveloping dust cloud. Once the radioactive dust cloud begins to settle, the overwhelming  magnitude of the damage starts to become apparent.   Outside the immediate blast zone citizens begin fleeing and the city and region quickly become  gridlocked.

Fire and police units outside the blast zone try to raise their dispatch centers but their radios and computer aided dispatch systems  aren't working.  They begin to probe towards the blast zone. Heavy debris makes travel difficult.  In front of them entire blocks of the city are on fire. The responders begin to understand  that they are in the middle of a terrorist attack and begin moving outwards  away from the blast site and contamination. About a mile out from the blast site they are still seeing heavy damage  to homes and moderate damage  to block and concrete buildings.  Thousands of vehicles are tossed about and rubble continues to make travel slow. Survivors are starting to make their way from damaged  buildings and heading towards them. They begin to route the walking wounded  away from the blast site and notice that they have started to collect the severely wounded  where their vehicles have stopped.

Other first responders  from outlying Phoenix areas begin moving towards  the explosion and begin encountering  damage approximately three miles out from the blast site. They would later learn that this was the beginning of the light damage  zone.  As some of the responders continue another mile inward, they encounter hundreds of walking wounded  and find themselves at an impromptu triage and treatment site of the severely wounded. They are now in the moderate damage  zone and they can see, all too well, the blocks of total devastation and the consuming fires of the severe blast zone.....

Individually, it's difficult trying to imagine the consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack on a large city in America.  Now imagine leading a group trying to build a common  operating picture of what it would look like so America could build an emergency response effort around it. So to that end, add to the scenario, 20,000 fatalities, 60,000 injuries and evacuations nearing 700,000.  Radioactive contamination moving beyond the blast zone through various transmission  means. An intense criminal investigation conducted by the FBI. Numerous homeland security and other law enforcement agencies tasked with coordinating the intelligence gathering and prevention of secondary terrorism activity.  Military resources heavily involved in incident  mitigation,security and numerous  other support operations.

To continue to build upon this common operating picture, add the emergency response efforts that America will send to this crippled city in the form  of thousands, if not tens ofthousands of emergency responders.  All of them ready to go to work and looking for direction from the local government, as dictated  by our nation's National Response Framework guidelines- "locals are in charge while state and federal agencies are in support". Even if the locals are down on their knees, just trying to figure out what happened and not capable of providing much leadership, they are in charge. Seems like all the elements of a huge crash, one that you know you shouldn't watch,but you just can't turn  away from.  And if this storyline  sounds vaguely familiar, a similar one was played out in 2005 during the early response and recovery efforts at hurricane  Katrina.

So how do we as a nation learn from our mistakes and figure out the best way to deal with overwhelming disasters and disaster response?  Well if you're the federal Department of Homeland Security and you're tasked with such a mission, you team up with the Department of Defense's U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) to do a series of large scale disaster exercises around the nation under a program called Vigilant Shield. However, if you're  not in the military that creates another question of what's a USNORTHCOM?

After the 2001 September 11th  terrorist attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was created to increase civilian homeland  security and disaster response capabilities in the US. In a related move, the Department of Defense tasked the U.S. Army to establish a new combatant command center that would anticipate and conduct homeland  defense duties to defend and secure the homelands of United States. USNORTHCOM would also be responsible to coordinate all active duty military support to civil responses for natural  and manmade disasters. USNORTHCOM was created in 2002 and its headquarters  was located at Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

One of the primary  goals of USNORTHCOM's Vigilant Shield program is to sponsor training exercises that enhance the preparedness and coordination of civilian emergency responders with National Guard and active duty military forces during disasters and homeland defense operations. The Vigilant Shield program began in 2005 and all states are required  to host and participate in one of these national level exercises every four years. In the fall of 2011, USNORTHCOM and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would team up again to conduct its fourteenth Vigilant Shield exercise in Phoenix, Arizona.  The scenario would be based on a 10 kiloton  improvised nuclear devise detonation and would be called "Vigilant Guard Arizona".

"Vigilant  Guard Arizona", the name sounds noble and worthy.   But, if you've been in the emergency services for any length of time you're probably  flashing to a memory  of participating in a federally  mandated,over-the-top exercise, that was frustrating from beginning to end. With many of those memories about the disagreements between emergency managers and emergency responders based on the frustrations of trying to conduct a complex and multi­ tiered  exercise with a fraction  of the funds to do it right.  Would Vigilant Guard Arizona be another full scale escapade? Or could it be a valuable full scale exercise? Questions that Chuck McHugh, Operation Section Chief at Arizona Department of Emergency Management, would be asking to avoid another federal exercise where the Arizona Department of Emergency Management (ADEM) would be caught in the middle.  Caught between encouraging and supporting local governments to step up and provide disaster response leadership and trying to get federal resource managers to let go of control  and coordinate with, if not listen to, local's concerns.

Determined to avoid the "who's  in charge" syndrome during the upcoming exercise, ADEM's Director, Lou Trammel, along with  his staff and other government officials took full advantage of a series of training sessions sponsored by the exercise planners.  The intent  of the pre exercise training sessions was to provide clarity and understanding of government's role in disaster response. These training sessions covered the following topics:  The roles and responsibilities of a Policy Group (Mayors, County Board of Supervisor and Governors); Understanding joint civilian and military operations; Mass evacuation operations  and Mass care and recovery procedures.

To provide further focus to the upcoming exercise, ADEM staff also sponsored two  stakeholder meetings with local, regional and federal responders.  During the first "Incident Coordination and Support" meeting, responders reviewed the roles, responsibilities and various perspectives seen during a large disaster response.  They reviewed the National Response Framework  and discussed its ability to bring the collective strength of our national government to a besieged community. Conversely, they talked about the national response framework's weaknesses of dumping massive amounts of resources on a local government without formally addressing the command  and control elements needed to supervise the flood of resources. The group also discussed the roles and responsibilities of incident  management  and area command  teams, emergency operation centers and unified policy/coordination groups.  ADEM's goal for the meeting was to get everyone on the same page as to what a huge coordinated disaster response was supposed to look like.

Two weeks later, a second "Incident  Management Structure" meeting would showcase the below objectives from Arizona's Improvised  Nuclear Devise plan and facilitate discussions about forming common response goals from the local to the federal level.  Attendees at the second meeting included the city of Phoenix's Emergency Manager; an Assistant Chief from the City of Phoenix Fire Department; the Emergency Manager from Maricopa  County;a Lieutenant  Colonel from the Arizona National Guard; an Operation Section Chief from FEMA's Incident Management Assistance Team; a Type 2 Incident Commander; three Type 1incident commanders;an Area Commander; a representative from the FBI and ADEM staff members. The participants represented a good cross section of initial and extended response organizations that  would be involved in this kind of response.  After introductions ADEM's staff reviewed the scenario and outlined the damage it would cause. After the scenario update, Chuck McHugh addressed the group.  "So, how should we respond to this incident..."

Arizona's Improvised Nuclear  Device Plan Objectives:

  1. Support  medical surge capability.
  2.  Support management of mass fatalities.
  3.  Support medical evacuation.
  4.  Support evacuation and mass care.
  5.  Support decontamination operations.
  6.  Support security operations.
  7.  Support rescue operations.
  8.  Supporting monitoring, assessment and protection.
  9.  Coordinate restoration of critical infrastructure.

Lou Trammel and Chuck McHugh believed that ifthere was a common operating picture  with listed objectives, the next step would be to develop a definitive command and control organizational structure to lead the response in the field.  Chuck felt that early command  and control leadership and support for the thousands of responders would be critical for a successful disaster response.  Tapping into his 42 years in the emergency services, 2S years as a County Sheriff and 17 years with  ADEM, Chuck knew that governments tend to respond to disasters in three  ways: 1) Ignore it and wait for it to go away; 2) Respond without organization; and,3) Respond to it with  organization.  However, it was Chuck's recent experience as a Liaison Officer on an Arizona Type 2 All Hazards incident  management  team that cemented  his belief that incident  management  teams were the tool to bring early and effective  organization  to incidents.

At the second "Incident  Management Structure" meeting, the concept of placing four Type 1 incident  management  teams (IMT's) around the blast site, all of them working in uncontaminated areas, was brought up.  Questions and comments  arouse such as: "those are expensive resources and do you think that the wildland  fire community will allow their IMT's and Area Command teams to participate?" The conversation soon went back to the severity of the scenario and that this would be an incident  of national significance and all resources would be made available for initial response.  With those concepts in place, the group moved on with little hesitation.

The participants also discussed what they felt would be some of the initial objectives for incident  management  teams going to work around the blast site would look like:

  • Ensure responder safety through assessment and mitigation of hazards.
  • Conduct search and rescue, de ontamination,
  • Suppress fires.
  • Ensure law and order security for responders and the public.
  • Conduct mass fatality management.
  • Conduct assessment of damage and contamination.

Most of the above IMT's objectives would be derived from Arizona's Improvised  Nuclear Device Operation  Plan. To further  those objectives,the group felt that an additional Type 11MT would be utilized for dealing with patient  decontamination and medical surge issues around the blast site as hospitals statewide  would already be overloaded.  An Area Command Team (ACT) would be placed over the IMT's to ensure a strategically coordinated effort and to resolve any operational or logistical issues that would arise in the field.  Four type 2 IMT's would be ordered to manage staging area located east,south, north and west of Phoenix, all near major highways and possibly located at military or civilian air ports.  A second Area Command Team would be ordered to assist the Type 2 IMT's and a preliminary Type 11MT preorder  was developed to begin discussion on the topic (see below).  As the meeting  was wrapping up, Scott Krushak, Emergency Manager for the City of Phoenix, stated that he could see the City of Phoenix doubling the orders for incident  management  teams and response resources. He shared his concerns that the city of Phoenix is the sixth most populated city in the U.S. at 1.3 million people and spread out over 500 square miles.  With the blast's zones covering 100 plus square miles and affecting a population of approximately 300,000, Krushack felt strongly that Phoenix's remaining population would also need at least minimal  support.  "I think Phoenix would need to at least double the initial order for IMT's and resources to address all of Phoenix's needs...."

Type 11MT Resource Order for Vigilant Guard Exercise
Preorder to include caterer,shower unit,laundry unit and radio cache system to support 2000 INO incident personnel.  Specific operational resources to be ordered with each IMT include the following:

  • 4 Type 1 US&R Task Force
  • 5 Task Force Leaders for structure fire task force- recommended configuration (2 engines, 2 trucks, 1 ALS rescue squad, 2 tactical water tenders,1 breathing apparatus support, 1 mechanic unit)
  • 20 type 1 engine
  • 20 type 1 truck
  • 10 type 2 tactical water tender
  • 5 type  1 ALS rescue squads
  • 5 type 1 breathing apparatus support
  • 5 type 1 field mobile mechanics
  • 5 Strike Teams type 1 ALS ambulances
  • 1 type 1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team
  • 1 type 1 Disaster Mortuary Team
  • 2 type 1 Law Enforcement Mobile  Field Force
  • 1 type 1 SWAT Team
  • 1 type 1 Pathfinder Taskforce (asses and supports homebound victims and manages 20 PODs for population of up to 250,000. Provides first pass large debris clearing teams and major intersection support to avoid post-disaster gridlock on arterial roads)
  • 5 Task Force Leaders for public works task force- recommended configuration (1big crane 2 all-terrain cranes, 2 excavators, 1 loader, 2 dump trucks, 1 mechanic unit)
  • 5 type 1cranes
  • 10 type 1 all-terrain cranes
  • 10 type 1 excavators 5 type 1large wheeled loaders
  • 5 type 1 dump trucks
  • 5 type 2 dump trucks
  • 5 type 1field mobile mechanics
  • 1 Large Animal Rescue strike team
  • 1 Small Animal  Rescue strike team


  • 1 EMS Physician
  • 1 Physician
  • 1 Physician Assistant
  • 1 Registered Nurse
  • 1 Environmental Health Leader
  • 1 Behavioral Health Specialist
  • 1 Mass Dispensing Team Leader licensed 1Social Worker
*Possible Operation  Branch Configuration: Rescue, Medical, Fire, Mortuary, Victim Support


As the Vigilant Guard Arizona exercise moved closer and closer, Chuck and the ADEM staff stressed that the key to success for the scenario was to stay focused on providing early and functional command  and control efforts  in the field with incident  management  teams.  They very much wanted to avoid the early chaotic response environment during Hurricane Katrina where local,regional and state governments,still reeling from the storm, became even more overwhelmed by the thousands of responders coming to assist. ADEM felt they had the direction from the city of Phoenix to go big and order Incident management  and area command teams for command  and control  in the city.  ADEM staff also knew that for these teams to be successful they needed to work for an organization  with effective  support  and coordination abilities.  In this scenario, they would go to work for an emergency operation center that would be guided by a unified leadership group.  But, which emergency operation center (EOC) would they work for would be the question?

In an incident this big, the National Response Framework model speaks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opening up a "Joint Field Office" in the region.  To do this, FEMA would secure a facility large enough to house both  a state EOC and a Federal EOC (during hurricane Katrina, FEMA located its Joint Field Office in Baton Rouge, La in a vacant three story shopping mall).  With a site secured, FEMA would then bring in one of its Incident Management Assistance Teams to help bring the new, super EOC facility  online and help form a Unified Coordination Group to guide the newly formed Joint Field Office.  At a minimum, this leadership group would have representation from the following levels of government: City of Phoenix; Maricopa  County; state of Arizona; Department of Defense; federal law enforcement and someone from FEMA representing the entire federal government. This Unified Coordinating Group would set priorities for the entire statewide  incident  and address the political, policy and strategic issues that would face them.  The group would strive to coordinate and direct a local/state/federal disaster response organization. FEMA's Incident  Management Assistance Team would be the glue that would bring this together. Not an easy task with the many and divergent  perspectives that can appear in an event of this type.  Especially if no stakeholder's meeting had ever taken place before hand.

Chuck McHugh knew the benefits  of defining success in emergency response.  He also knew that it was valuable to talk about what failure looks like. He knew that if the signs and symptoms of failure can be seen early,it allows time to fix the problems  before they become catastrophic. With this in mind, he would watch for the slow set up and operations of the Joint Field Office.  He also expected to see in some form or another the reluctance of local and regional EOC's to consolidate  within  the Joint Field Office.  Too many times he had seen understaffed EOC's around the state move towards dysfunction as they not only worked at providing coordination and support but also drifted towards trying to dictate command and control strategies and tactics to field units.  He would look for signs and symptoms that the JFO's coordination and support role was taking on command and control duties by assigning resources directly to the field without any incident  management team oversight.

Lou Trammel and Chuck McHugh knew the organizational model that they wanted to overlay on our nations' national response framework that would be heading to them in this exercise. "Command & control and coordination & support"  would be their mantra. "Incident Management Teams and Area Command Teams get the work done in the field and EOC's provide strategic coordination and support". Simple enough to say, but in its purest form,it had never been done that way.

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