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Idaho quake response exercise flexes multiagency muscle

By Master Sgt. Sarah Pokorney | Idaho National Guard | March 20, 2019

BOISE, Idaho – A team of personnel from the Washington National Guard’s 10th Homeland Response Force, dressed in tan protective suits, entered a partially collapsed building in search of possible survivors.

The damage to the building and potential deadly argon gas contamination resulted from a catastrophic earthquake and aftershocks affecting southern Idaho.

Across town, in a dark, cramped room deep within the Lucky Peak Dam, Guard members of the Idaho 101st Civil Support Team assemble a rescue tripod over a dark utility hole to rescue workers trapped hundreds of feet below.

These are just a few of the hundreds of disaster scenarios that played out over the week-long Idaho National Guard disaster response exercise, Idaho Response-19, that took place March 7 to 13 in Boise, Idaho.

More than 350 Guard members took part in the exercise. Nearly 80 were Idaho Army National Guard Soldiers and Idaho Air National Guard Airmen, including the 101st Civil Support Team, Joint Staff assigned to Idaho’s Joint Operations Center, white cell planners, observers and personnel orchestrating Joint Reception, Staging, Onward Movement, and Integration, or JRSOI, for inbound organizations.

Nearly 250 participants came from surrounding states including Guard members from Washington’s 10th HRF, Montana National Guard’s 83rd CST, and Utah National Guard’s 85th CST. Representatives from U.S. Northern Command and the National Guard Bureau joined the Joint Task Force Idaho staff.

The purpose of the Idaho Response-19 exercise was to test the Idaho National Guard’s ability to interact with regional partners and support civil authorities and agencies during a no-notice, catastrophic disaster. The scenario was designed to overwhelm an otherwise prepared state.

“When we started planning in early 2017, we envisioned an exercise of such magnitude that it would drive objectives we’ve never performed in a domestic response before,” said Col. Doug Smith, exercise director. “It would include seeking National Guard capabilities outside of the state like the 10th Homeland Response Force and civil support teams, require us to JRSOI incoming resources and stand up a dual-status commander to receive Title 10 forces.”

“I didn’t want to make too many factors notional, so we could really go through the motions as we would in a real response. The joint staff came in piecemeal as they would in a real incident—because they would be victims too,” said Smith. “The staff struggled at first but exceeded my expectations as they tracked both simulated and notional activities.”

The exercise was engineered to challenge the participants in a variety of ways. Day one started with a high volume of incidents overwhelming local first responders and testing participants’ communication skills and established processes. Day two brought fewer but more complex scenarios, which required more specialized response capabilities and taxed decision-making and prioritization skills. As the exercise progressed, the highly complex situations required focused working groups and multi-agency collaboration. The exercise culminated with a significant infusion of notional federal resources, which brought the exercise to a timely end.

“Some of the biggest lessons learned included our coordination with the Idaho Office of Emergency Management and how to support them as well as the process that the joint staff developed to effectively respond to situations as they rolled in,” said Col. Ryan Robinson, exercise chief of joint staff.

Robinson explained that the 18 months of preparation for the exercise included quarterly joint staff training, practical exercises, sending observers to Vigilant Guard exercises in other states and a visit to U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.

Smith noted that the Idaho National Guard plans to hold another similar exercise in 2022 that will align with the Washington and Oregon Vigilant Guard Exercises, NORTHCOM’s Ardent Sentry and FEMA’s Cascadia Rising, which are based on a scenario following an earthquake and tsunami in the highly probable Cascadia Subduction Zone. Dubbed “The Big One,” this widespread incident is predicted to unleash a 9.0+ magnitude earthquake and a 100 foot-tall tsunami affecting the bulk of the Pacific coast shoreline and western states.

Smith went on to explain that key to maintaining our preparedness is by keeping leadership and the joint staff engaged while continuing to refine the planning and training. “The joint staff needs to stay engaged, which can be challenging as an additional duty, but we’re on a good path.”

The exercise followed the Idaho Office of Emergency’s Management’s three-day exercise, Operation Shared Response, which focused on the same scenario the week before. That exercise included local, state and federal responders. Both exercises ensure that the Idaho Military Division remains capable to respond during a real-world emergency or disaster.