Preparing for Disaster: Exercise Angel Thunder 2013

By Stephen Recca, M.A.

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Angel ThunderI recently returned from a planning conference associated with Exercise Angel Thunder 2013. AT-13, and its Defense Support of Civil Authorities segment (Resolute Angel) are played on an 18-month cycle to exercise local, state, federal, and multinational civil and military agencies in disaster response and – particularly for the military forces – personnel recovery in simulated earthquake and combat scenarios.

For the current exercise planning cycle, two dozen state and local agencies from Arizona and New Mexico, more than 30 Defense Department agencies, other federal agencies and non-governmental organizations (including all of the Combat Commands, the State Department, DHS, FEMA, USAID, TSA, Red Cross, Pacific Disaster Center), and 15 foreign militaries from all continents save Antarctica, were represented. And, the exercise area will be large, encompassing much of Arizona and western New Mexico, involving two FEMA Regions (IX and VI, respectively).

In scope alone, Angel Thunder is the largest combined disaster and personnel recovery exercise in the world.

For those familiar with either real-world disaster preparedness and emergency management or with strategic and operational-level policy and planning (National Response Framework, National Incident Management System, and PPD-8), you will appreciate the multi-dimensional wrenches thrown by AT-13 into the work of tactical-level emergency response planners and on-scene incident commanders. Besides the usual suspects of emergency response – communication, coordination, and command and control – here are some additional examples:

  • What time is it? Something as basic as getting everyone using the same time-zone is critical to operational and tactical communications. Arizona is on Pacific Standard Time. New Mexico is on Mountain Time. The United States and most of our foreign military partners operate on “Zulu Time” (Greenwich Mean Time) and a 24-hour clock. How do we ensure that the New Mexico State Patrol Officer’s watch reads the same time as the H-60 Blackhawk rescue crew? The wrong time means missed coordination calls, responder meetings, helicopter pick-ups, and medical attention.
  • What do we communicate to the public? Clear, understandable, and accurate public information is vital to successful disaster communications. But, considering the large size and scope of the exercise area, there will be multiple incident command locations, which means multiple touch-points for the press to engage responders and incident commanders directly. Plus, there’s the Federal Coordinating Officer running the regional federal agency piece. And, don’t forget the White House, Pentagon, and others in Washington, DC (which also brings in another element to the time-zone issue!). Who controls the message? Maybe “control” is too strong. How about, who coordinates the message across the geographic and interagency spectrum to ensure that the public has accurate, timely information? It helps to remember that, in a democracy, informed citizens can be assets in a wide-range of disaster response and recovery efforts.
  • Who’s in charge? The National Incident Management System (NIMS) provides a solid structure that, for the most part, answers chain-of-command issues. Still, we are a nation of 54 sovereign states and territories, with a variety of interpretations and approaches – some historical and cultural – to incident command and local authorities. For AT-13, the military command structure is simple, even with the international partners. However, planners must negotiate the state-level differences between New Mexico and Arizona. In the former, the State Patrol manages search-and-rescue and disaster response; in the latter, the county sheriff is king and – historically – an independent actor reluctant to share or relinquish authorities to either the Governor or the Feds. These are pieces of the coordination puzzle that event planners must tackle to maximize success – and save lives.

Frank Duarte - Sheriff of Pima County, AZNo matter the exercise or event size, it is all about getting the job done. Captain Frank Duarte, Pima County Sheriff’s Office, was the Incident Commander during the response to the tragic shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords and 18 others (six of whom lost their lives) in January 2011. His participation in AT-13 planning added realism, relevance and a local flavor. Captain Duarte commented on the need to plan and exercise the best we can. But, at the end of the day – or, rather, to the right of boom – we show up to the game with the players and equipment we have. And, while we call on our training and experience, it is our ability to improvise and innovate as situations evolve that allows us to be successful in the most adverse, unexpected scenarios.

If you enjoyed this article by Dr. Recca you might enjoy Dr. Nadav Morag’s recent post on the U.S. Army’s Tabletop Exercise in Tanzania.

Image credit 1: Flickr/Air Combat Command

Image credit 2: Colorado Technical University / Frank Duarte taken during his visit to CTU’s Colorado Springs campus in 2011 in which he and his team briefed faculty, students and regional public safety and emergency officials on the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords.