Wednesday, May 19, 2010

National Guard members never stop training for hurricane season

by Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
National Guard Bureau

5/19/2010 - ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) -- Although most hurricanes occur between the months of June and October, being prepared to respond to the aftereffects of a hurricane is almost a year-round task for the members of the National Guard.

"We actually almost never stop (training),"said Maj. Gen. Bill Etter, the director of domestic operations at the National Guard Bureau. "If you look at a hurricane season extending almost to November, as soon as that's over in January we're back at it (training) again."

Part of that training and preparation includes working out the details with other agencies.

"This past January, we had a week-long workshop where we rolled our sleeves up and got a lot of stuff done," said General Etter, adding that it included the states, the National Guard Bureau and U.S. Northern Command.

During the workshop, available Guard assets were identified in each state and plans were made that matched those capabilities with what would be needed should hurricanes of varying strengths make landfall, General Etter said.

"We developed a matrix for each state, and who was going to actually backfill that capability gap in the event there was a large-scale hurricane," he said. "We also brought in the United States Coast Guard, and FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security for an outbrief at the end, ... so everybody had an awareness of what we have and what we need (for) very high winds or a very large hurricane."

A second workshop was held a few months later.

"That was an attempt to make sure that everyone knew that we built a plan, and here's our plan and everyone is on the same sheet of music," General Etter said.

Last year was a relatively light hurricane season, but 2008 included several back-to-back storms that hit several states.

While responding to so many storms at once may have presented many challenges, it also gave insights on how to improve things for future responses, General Etter said.

"We have not only lessons learned but lessons applied," he said. "It's great to study, but we actually want to go back and adjust and keep raising the bar for our response."

Improved ways of getting supplies to where they need to go is one of these lessons learned, the general said.

"We're trying to concentrate on in-transit visibility," he said. "We want to make sure if water is going to an area, that the amount of water that we think is going to arrive will actually do that. But, by the same token, we don't want to send 10 times the amount of water needed to one area and another area is getting no water."

This can be accomplished by using technology normally associated with tracking elements on the battlefield, such as the Blue Force Tracker, which uses global positioning system technology to display the locations of units and vehicles.

"You can see where the trucks are, where the airplanes are and where the forces are moving around making sure they're getting there at the right time," General Etter said.

Medical evacuation procedures have also been refined.

"One of the difficult things ... is aeromedical evacuation (when) a very large storm hits a coastal area," said General Etter, adding that the difficulty comes from pinpointing where the hurricane is going to hit.

"You can't evacuate everyone if it's, say, a 120-mile wide swath," he said. "You have to wait until that cone narrows down."

Being able to better forecast the projected path of a hurricane has made that less of a challenge, the general said.

"Forecasting has improved significantly over the past 10 years, so 48 hours out, you can get a pretty good idea of where one of these things is going," he said. "But, you have a very small window where the winds get too high and you can no longer fly these aircraft out.

"It's something where a decision has to be made very quickly, very accurately and a very focused effort has to occur," he said.

Part of that accurate and focused response also comes from working with other agencies, General Etter said.

"I think the partnerships have improved greatly," he said. "I've been living and breathing this for about three-and-a-half years and it's never been better. We try and view this as a team effort. It's not just a National Guard effort but rather a whole-of-government effort."

That partnership includes the local and state governments, who have their own hurricane response plans.

"We've been able to get the next level up where we bring all these state plans under a common review and kind of do a best-of album, and get those best practices back to the states so that every state becomes a little bit better," General Etter said. "We want to make sure they have the benefit of not having to go through lessons learned."

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