The traditional military decision making process with its locked, vertical communication processes will be too slow to be completely effective in the face of the fast pace of unfolding disasters.
The Chemical, Biological Radiological Nuclear Response Enterprise exercises foster interagency cooperation and support for response and recovery of man-made and natural disasters. Embedded within each of the ten Federal Emergency Management Agency Regions are Defense Coordinating Elements lead by an O-6 Defense Coordinating Officer. The nine-person DCE is the single point of entry for all local, tribal, state, and federal requests for DoD assistance. The DCE is augmented by senior reserve officers serving as Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps assigned to each state. The EPLOs work closely with state emergency managers and the state National Guard Joint Force Headquarters to maintain awareness of capabilities, gaps, and emergency response plans within their state. During a disaster they serve a vital role by faciliting information sharing between the DCE and State Emergency Operations Centers or Joint Force Headquarters. This is especially critical in developing situational awareness and building trust between local or state and federal entities.
The general saying in the Defense Support of Civil Authorities world is “a disaster is not the place to be handing out business cards,” meaning a disaster is not the place you should meet your intra-agency counter-part for the first time. During VIBRANT RESPONSE 13 the DCE had the unique opportunity to rehearse interagency operations while working with FEMA National and Regional Incident Management Assistance Teams who were also participating in the National Exercise scenario for the first time. FEMA IMATs rapidly deploy to effected venues and assist local and state leadership to identify federal assistance requirements, and to coordinate and integrate inter-jurisdictional response in support of an affected state or territory. As the name implies, they help manage Federal resources to fill needs that the local and state emergency managers cannot meet. During VR 13 the DCE actively participated in the FEMA 24-hour planning cycle known as the Incident Action Process, identified and validated DoD mission assignments, and provided the requirements and guidance to U. S. Army North’s Joint Task Force-Civil Support headquarters for action.
The VR 13 exercise was followed by the real-world deployment of multiple FEMA IMATs and six DCEs to five states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to support the response and recovery needs resulting from the landfall of Hurricane Isaac. Many of the DCEs had not previously operated in hurricane states. Using their understanding of FEMA operations and well trained state EPLOs they were able to establish a Federal Staging Area for Urban Search and Rescue Teams, coordinate Incident Support Bases, facilitate aerial imagery, and control DoD helicopters deployed in support of the Federal response.
The CRE exercise VR 13 served as an excellent opportunity for DoD to interact with Federal, State, and local agencies to prepare for the “next big disaster.” The way ahead is clearly to continue fostering the DoD relationship with our partner Federal Agencies to plan and prepare for civil support for all-hazards events.