Charred hulks of buildings lie smoldering in this once-proud American metropolis, while dazed victims wander the streets aimlessly in search of food, water, and their missing loved ones. Meanwhile, rescue workers clear the city streets block by block, pulling victims from the rubble. Others still try to calm unruly mobs
Over 9,000 people--including US military forces, along with Federal, State, and local responders--participated in an extensive training exercise spanning the entire state of Indiana. Known as "Vibrant Response", the exercise tests the Defense Department's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Response Enterprise (CRE). The scenario begins with the notional detonation of a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon--three-fifths the power of the "Little Boy" bomb--in a major metropolitan area. Responders from all levels of government must cooperate to provide a timely response, as prescribed in the National Response Framework.
Major disasters can often cause a chain reaction, resulting in complex catastrophes. Just witness the 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan, which spawned a massive tsunami, which in turn caused nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima. It was the same with the fictitious nuclear detonation during Vibrant Response, which forced responders to react to riots, public health hazards, fires, and industrial accidents.
Though many consider a domestic nuclear explosion unlikely, the skills honed during Vibrant Response pay huge dividends during other major disasters. One can't help but look at the landscape at MUTC and not see similar environments in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima disaster, or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Had the scenario not specifically mentioned a nuclear detonation, the scene could have just as easily been Los Angeles after an earthquake, or the Midwest following a tornado.
The Muscatatuck Urban Training Center portrayed a suburban area, several kilometers upwind of the explosion. Though this suburb experienced little in the way of nuclear fallout, the residents had still undergone a massive blast wave which leveled buildings, overturned cars, and littered the streets with debris.
There's little imagination required at MUTC--the cadre took painstaking efforts to strew debris across the urban training area. With the help of pyrotechnics, smoke generators, and an army of role-players, the men and women of the Defense CBRN Response Force (DCRF) have to constantly remind themselves that they're not in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.
(The analogy to the Zombie Apocalypse is entirely warranted--Max Brooks, author of "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War", paid a visit to MUTC during Vibrant Response.)
MUTC sits near the agricultural campus of Purdue University, and features a number of buildings--residences, steam rooms, high-rise buildings, parking decks, neighborhoods, trailer parks, and schools. As MUTC is a training venue for urban environments ranging from Chicago to Kabul, participants may find flooded subdivisions--as we saw in Hurricane Katrina--located a few hundred meters from a rural Afghan mosque. Yet, for its size, there is no finer urban training venue available in the world.
After donning an Observer/Controller's vest, Jeff Chase, one of the exercise controllers, takes me for a driving tour of the training area.
Our first stop is a casualty collection point, manned by the 102nd Forward Surgical Team (FST) from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Survivors of the blast filter through, some with minor injuries, others requiring major surgery. The surgical team sets up shop in massive, air-conditioned tents within a few hours after arriving at MUTC. Over the course of a few days, the FST provides Level 1 trauma care to hundreds of patients. Casualties requiring more critical care are quickly shuttled by ground ambulance to a local hospital, or shuttled to a helicopter landing zone for evacuation aboard US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
Over two hundred first aid mannequins are used during the course of Vibrant Response. The Vibrant Response cadre, under the leadership of Dr. Skip Dionne, painstakingly applies fake blood to each mannequin. The mannequins are recycled throughout the exercise; the Defense CBRN Response Force will likely evacuate hundreds of patients over the course of the scenario.
The casualty collection point doesn't just accept humans, either. During modern disasters, animals pose a unique challenge: pets are important parts of our families, while livestock provides millions of Americans with their livelihoods each year. Thankfully, the Forward Surgical Team includes a detachment of eight veterinarians. Jeff Chase and I follow their convoy from the casualty collection point to a makeshift farm on the outskirts of MUTC's "residential" section.
MUTC is home to donkeys, camels, sheep, and even alpacas, which are out in full force when MUTC replicates rural areas, like Afghanistan. Though it's true that alpacas aren't native to the United States, large livestock farms could be affected by a catastrophic event, as could local zoos. (The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina with miraculously little damage).
Today, veterinarians attached to the 102nd FST scan the animals for radiation, while listening to the concerns of their keepers. Fortunately, all seems well at the "zoo"; Jeff and I head off to the Incident Command Post.
A fire station serves as the Incident Command Post at MUTC, with a role-player serving as the Incident Commander (IC). (Federal forces always operate in support of civil authorities--as mandated by the Posse Comitatus Act)
The command post looks like any other field-expedient military command post, with a slight difference. As I look at the myriad of computer screens, (what we call the Common Operating Picture, or "COP"), I notice that the local Incident Commander is running his entire command post on Macintosh computers, using open-source Google software for mapping.
As US troops learned during Hurricane Katrina, and again during disaster relief in Haiti, relief workers simply don't have access to the same information systems as the military. The US military simply cannot share information with the Red Cross over CPOF, CIDNE, DCGS, Palantir, or Blue-Force Tracker. This can become confusing in a crisis, when seconds count. Instead, government and non-governmental agencies prefer to collaborate over open-source systems such as Google Earth and Google Documents.
(Best of all, Google Earth is free)
In another sign of the times, Vibrant Response even simulates the effects of social media, in addition to traditional sources. Through a program known as "Simulation Deck", Vibrant Response replicates the social media reactions from uses on venues such as "Ewetube", "Frogger", and "Bleater". Participants must monitor each of the venues for blog posts and "Bleeps", responding to critical questions, and disseminating valuable emergency information.
Vibrant Response is not just the largest annual exercise devoted to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear response; it's also the largest one to train US service members to provide Defense Support of Civil Authorities.
The Defense CBRN Response Force (DCRF) consists of units tailored for the CBRN mission--aviation, logistics, operations, and medical support. However, these units are also worth their weight in gold during a massive catastrophe, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The lessons learned while integrating with other government agencies will apply to nearly every civil disaster in which federal troops are involved, and perhaps that is the greatest takeaway from Vibrant Response. We can be almost certain that a major catastrophe--be it natural or man-made--will strike the American homeland in the years to come. When that day comes, the time, effort, and money spent preparing for the unthinkable disaster will pay huge dividends.
We owe the American people nothing less.