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Arkansas Guard unit refines earthquake plan with partners

By Capt. Shannon Haney | 119th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment | March 15, 2019

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. – The 61st Civil Support Team (CST), 87th Troop Command, simulated its first on-the-ground earthquake response on Wednesday, as part of the Arkansas National Guard’s ongoing “New Madrid earthquake” planning.

The National Guard unit based out of Camp Joseph T. Robinson, North Little Rock, linked up with other local response agencies as part of the training. Representatives from the Memphis Police Department, the U.S. Coast Guard, Homeland Security, Arkansas Game and Fish, and the Pulaski County Emergency Management were all on hand throughout the day-long exercise.

“New Madrid” planning references the potential for a repeat of the 1811-1812 series of earthquakes along the Mississippi River (affecting Northeast Arkansas), which remain the most powerful to have ever hit the eastern half of the United States. The historic earthquake, as well as the underlying seismic zone, were named after the town of New Madrid.

“We intend on simulating the completely austere environment we will likely encounter when we occupy a forward position in Crittenden County after a catastrophic New Madrid earthquake,’ Lt. Col. Seth Tolliver, commander of the 61st CST said before the exercise.

“Since we are the only Arkansas National Guard assets that will initially be in the county, we have to make sure we can carry out our mission without grid power, cellular or existing radio tower-dependent communications, and be able to self-sustain from days to weeks.”

Crittenden County is identified in New Madrid planning as a potentially devastated area, should the fault line produce a repeat. As part of the Arkansas National Guard’s overall response plan, the 61st CST is designated as one of the first units on the ground in the Northeast Arkansas affected area.

“Our unit will be one of the first birds out,” Tolliver said of the significance.

Widespread flooding is expected to be one of the biggest challenges in a New Madrid earthquake’s aftermath. Waterways could re-route and overflow, and the low-lying Delta would be susceptible to complete long-term saturation. This was the 61st CST’s first site visit to the county and one of the aims, according to Tolliver, was to find potential sites through which the unit could insert and begin setting up.

Members of the 61st CST simulated just that – setting up operations and communications in an harsh environment.

“None of that blue fleet is going to be here,” Tolliver told the unit as they began the day, pointing to the blue fleet of fully-equipped and self-sustaining emergency vehicles the unit typically would respond with. “You’re going to get here on a helicopter and survive on what you brought.”

With the help of the Arkansas Game and Fish and U.S. Coast Guard, the 61st CST also took their training to the water on Wednesday, exercising on the unit military specialty: identifying and mitigating hazardous materials.

The 61st CST’s typical missions are real-world events, not training simulations. They are often present at sizeable public gathering throughout the state, including stadium games and concerts, where they monitor for chemical, biological, radioactive, and nuclear (CBRN) material. Because the unit is in high demand, not just within the state but as a unit “on-call” within a multi-state regional CST network, all members are full-time active duty National Guard members. When on-call in their highest status, Gold, the unit must be able to respond in under 90 minutes to any state within the network.

That quick response ability made the unit an integral part of earthquake planning when the New Madrid task force began. Andy Traffenstedt, director of Pulaski County Emergency Management, on site at Wednesday’s training, said his organization also quickly became integrated.

“The task force started up in 2011, so about 8 years,” he said of working with the Arkansas National Guard earthquake planning. “We work with them in using their helicopter assets to move our advance team to the site. We would rather go by ground but already know we’re going to have to have some assets go in by air.”

Traffenstedt said the Pulaski County Emergency Management’s expertise lies in urban search and rescue efforts. In the event of an earthquake, his team will be focused on multi-story, high density, masonry buildings like schools and hospitals.

“Past five days, the survivability rate drops significantly,” Traffenstedt explained. “So we have to be there, getting people out within the first 72-96 hours. Time is really critical on our aspect.”

After the training exercise, Lt. Col. Tolliver said the 61st CST gained new insights, improvements and better familiarization as a result of being on the ground. The unit, he said will take back information that will help refine the National Guard’s overall earthquake response plan. He said they would return to the area in the future to continue building on the training they’ve begun.

“I really appreciate the interagency cooperating,” Col. Bussell, brigade commander of the 87th Troop Command, said during his observation of the event. “It’s important to (practice that) because this is how we’ll be operating in the real thing.”