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News | Feb. 9, 2016

SELs Given Glimpse Of Daily Front-Line Missions, Local Preparations For Larger-Scale Disasters

By By Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command

It’s cool outside as the sun drops and families settle in for the night just as they do each day in the Pacific Northwest. At the dinner table, slight vibrations are felt and seen as drinks sway in their glasses -- a subtle sign of just another small tremor, one of hundreds that occur yearly in this region. Just as quickly as it’s dismissed by desensitized residents though, it shakes the ground again … this time not so subtly. This is no small, normal tremor.

Unbeknownst to the residents, the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a roughly 620 mile-long fault ranging from the U.S.-Canadian border down to Northern California, has now ruptured and with it comes a shift in the sea floor and a lifting of immense amounts of water soon to bear down on the heavily populated coast. The results of this event will be catastrophic as earthquakes and tsunamis combine to destroy buildings, homes and infrastructure and block avenues for first responders wanting to help. The three days’ worth of supplies emergency operations teams say to have on hand at all times is looking like it may not be enough.

While this disaster isn’t real and it, or ones like it, can’t be predicted, they can be planned for.  This scenario is only one of numerous potentially dangerous events emergency operations teams, first responders, and local, state and federal governments routinely plan and train for.

As the combatant command (COCOM) responsible for the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command (NORAD and USNORTHCOM), have a vested interest in operations designed to protect this area of operations and the people included in it.

From an overarching, strategic level, NORAD and USNORTHCOM members are familiar with planning and decision-making matrices, but what sometimes lacks is the ability to see what is happening across the command and day-to-day at the local, state and regional levels. This is a disconnect Navy Fleet Master Chief Terrence Molidor, the command’s senior enlisted leader, plans to remedy. 

To accomplish this, nine senior enlisted members, including Molidor, travelled to Joint Base Lewis McChord in Tacoma, WA, from January 26 to 29 to gain insight to the daily workings at several agencies with which NORAD and USNORTHCOM may interact during a major incident or accident such as the Cascadia event.

"This trip was to designed to increase the knowledge of command senior enlisted leaders on what happens outside the headquarters -- how the day-to-day, tactical missions are accomplished," said Molidor, who’s been in the senior enlisted position for more than two years.  “While this group of senior leaders has intricate knowledge on what their directorate brings to any event as well as knowledge of the command mission from the headquarters perspective, they aren't normally privy to what happens daily in places such as WADS (Western Air Defense Sector), state emergency operations centers or tactical training Guard members perform."

The biggest take-aways for several of the command's top enlisted was to see the extent of involvement the National Guard plays at the grass-roots levels of operations and the amount of responsibility granted to individuals.

"It was eye-opening to see how much of a role (National) Guard members play in the overall NORAD and USNORTHCOM mission," said newest senior enlisted leader to the command, Chief Master Sgt. Marlene Hindman, USNORTHCOM J3 (Operations). "I also truly appreciated hearing the questions posed by the other SELs on the trip, all interested in how we can each better support our customers which, in a DSCA (defense support of civil authority) event, are the states."

After watching how the National Guardsmen at WADS monitor all aircraft tracks from the Mississippi River across the country to the west coast, the team then met with leaders from both the Washington and Oregon National Guards.

There they learned of the assets owned by each organization as well as how they interact with not just each other, but most of the first responders across their respective states. The Guard representatives spoke about past events they participated in, to include wildfires, for which 2015 was the worst in Washington’s history, and they touted their preparations, having more than 1,500 members trained and certified in wildfire firefighting in anticipation of the 2016 fire season.

Rounding out their first day of briefings, they met with Washington Emergency Management leaders to see what that team brings to the DSCA fight and how they fit into the overall National Response Framework; the Department of Homeland Defense’s overall national response plan for a multitude of potential natural and man-made disasters.

“We tell people to be self-sufficient for 72 hours,” said T.J. Dargan, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region X representative.  “While we are good at what we do, there are going to be times when we just can’t get to people in need. Our director, Craig Fugate, has a saying … ‘Go big, go fast,’ and what he means by that is for us to do all we can as fast as we can to help save lives and mitigate damages during a disaster.”

The need for supporting relationships helps all involved to do just what Director Fugate asks.

It’s not just local and state response that will assist in a major disaster such as the Cascadia event portrayed at the beginning of the article, but federal assets as well, to include naval forces, specifically those in the Navy Region Northwest area of operations.

The SEL team learned about two assets that could fall under USNORTHCOM’s operational guidance in a DSCA event, touring the nuclear submarine USS Pennsylvania and nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68).

“It was amazing to see the scale of response the Navy piece represents when it comes to DSCA missions,” said Hindman.  “That, combined with the emergency operations centers’ preparation and plans for conducting operations is truly impressive.  As a career command post Airman, I thought I had a good grasp on what’s involved, but this was an eye-opening trip and I will definitely bring some lessons learned back to my directorate.”

While the assets owned by the Navy impressed the command’s top enlisted, it was the people, and more specifically, the responsibility afforded those people that truly impressed them.

“It is eye-opening to see the commander, as the top authority of the nuclear submarine, being responsible for everyone on the boat as well as the possible launch of the world’s most feared weapons,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick Kutac, the command’s commandant.  “It was great to see how much the officers of the boat depend on the enlisted corps to accomplish the mission and the amount of authority and respect chiefs are given as they run their sections.”

 As the trip closed and the team travelled back to the airport, discussions of which agencies to see on the next trip ensued as the SELs plan to build on the information they gathered during the two days.

“I plan on doing more of these trips in the future, possibly two a year,” said Molidor. “It was absolutely worth it to travel here not just from my perspective, but I believe my fellow SELs achieved the level of learning we intended with this trip.”