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News | Nov. 19, 2012

NORAD, USNORTHCOM drills for continuity of operations

By Tech. Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - During a cold week in October, hundreds of people were ordered to march into a mountainous cavern and could only watch as two 20-ton steel doors were locked behind them, trapping them the cold darkness…

… then the next day the doors opened and they all went home.

Members of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command added a little twist to a recent continuity of operations exercise at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. Unlike past exercises where NORAD and USNORTHCOM personnel just worked at the alternate command center, this time the doors shut behind them and they stayed there for 24 hours.

“We’ve never really slept over in the mountain before as part of an exercise or as a group,” said Chris Franks, Continuity Plans and Operations Chief for NORAD and USNORTHCOM. “There were individuals who would do it periodically, but the testing of the full support package that Cheyenne Mountain provides is one of the key components you have to exercise to validate that previous arrangements are still satisfactory to accomplish the mission.”

The 20-ton blast doors are closed and opened once a week. The last time they were closed for a contingency was 9/11, but they’ve never been closed for an exercise for more than 45 minutes. Although Cheyenne Mountain has a reputation as a doomsday bunker, it was never actually designed to house people for an extended period, Glen Williams, Continuity Plans and Operations Planner, explained.

“There aren’t any berthing facilities,” he said. “In order to accommodate the number of people who that were going to be sleeping there, a number of cots were laid out in the entrance tunnels going into the facility. So there were hundreds of cots that were set up.”

Workers in Cheyenne Mountain would “hot cot,” with one person sleeping while another works At the end of their 12-hour shift, the workers would switch places.

Franks said there were three different goals of the 24-hour exercise, from both the NORAD and USNORTHCOM perspective and the Air Force perspective.

“The Air Force provides support once we’re inside the mountain and the doors close,” Franks explained. “Their objective was to verify that they could meet that support requirement.”

On the NORAD and USNORTHCOM side, Franks said it was important to know that the commands had the right people in the right staff positions in the mountain before the doors closed.

“Who are the people assigned to that battle staff, and do we have the right mix?” he asked. “Or do we have someone who needs to be replaced, who is okay to be on the battle staff at Building Two, but for mountain operations we need someone else?”

The third goal was for the people who actually hold those positions. Franks said there’s more to working in Cheyenne Mountain during a contingency than driving further away. It’s more like a deployment.

“As part of a deployment, you have to make sure your family is taken care of,” he explained. “You have to have a family care plan, a readiness plan, to make sure you’re ready. When you get to a combatant command headquarters, you have a much more senior group of personnel, and in a lot of cases they haven’t been at that tactical level in awhile. So you need to be ready to be able to serve in those positions because you might not be able to come home.”

For Canadian Forces Capt. Rock Bernard, being locked up in the Mountain reminded him of a previous job he had.

“The mountain is a big hole underground; so, it reminded me of my 2 years working in a gold mine in Red Lake, Ontario, but I felt extremely relieved when the giant hydraulic door opened and I walked out,” he said.

His brother, Canadian Forces Maj. Miguel Bernanrd agreed. “It was a unique experience to be inside Cheyenne Mountain for over 24hrs,” He said. “You didn't see the sun nor breathe the fresh Colorado air; however, it is extremely well built and so big that it ended up being ok,” he said.

Williams called the exercise a success. There was enough space and cots to accommodate everyone, and the Air Force and food service personnel from Fort Carson were able to provide three hot meals a day. They were even able to accommodate personnel with special sleeping needs.

“I’ll use myself as an example,” he said. “I have a CPAP (Controlled Positive Air Pressure) device, and I need to sleep next to an electrical outlet. At Cheyenne Mountain, you’re sleeping in a tunnel. There are some outlets, not many, but some. So they set up tents with multiple electrical outlets every six feet.”

Franks said he expects similar exercises in the future.

“We believe it will recur on a fairly regular basis,” he said. “The decision will rest with the commander and the chief of staff.” “It was not nearly as complicated as it could have been or people expected it to be,” Williams added.

Franks said it was important to test the commands’ ability to continue operating in the event of an emergency, and that they’ve proven that it can be done.

“The bottom-line of testing and training and exercising for our continuity of operations plan is to verify that we are able to continue our mission if we have to vacate Building 2,” he said. “We have done that many times now, and in all cases we can continue to execute our mission-essential functions from either location, and we do it equally as well from Building 2 or inside Cheyenne Mountain.”