By Mary E. Thach, 155th Air Refueling Wing
/ Published May 29, 2014
Lincoln, Neb. -- "Exercise, exercise, exercise. Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown," echoed from the intercom system. Police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, and emergency personnel waited on stand-by as the sound of gun-fire shattered the silence in the air.
What seemed like a normal, breezy April morning at the Nebraska National Guard air base turned into havoc and horror within seconds.
Thankfully, all of the havoc was simulated when the Nebraska Air and Army National Guard collaborated with local law enforcement and emergency response agencies for a mass casualty exercise April 24, at the Nebraska National Guard air base in Lincoln, Neb.
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Carl Oestmann, chief of security forces and exercise director, said he wanted a realistic scenario to effectively test the response of his personnel, along with civilian first responders, so he contacted the agencies that would be involved if a mass casualty incident ever occurred. Those agencies included the Lincoln Police Department, Nebraska State Patrol, TSA, Airport Police, Nebraska Military Department including Joint Force Headquarters, Lincoln Fire and Rescue, and 911 operators.
"I wanted to ensure we refine our skills and work collaboratively with other first responder partners," said Oestmann. "Having the opportunity to do this training can only benefit us - there is no downside. I think this is a great opportunity for the military and for our responders to work together because we all have the same cause: protection of the citizens of our great state."
The purpose of the exercise was to ensure that the first responders and emergency agencies, both military and civilian, know how to work together and communicate with one another in case an incident ever occurs.
That was evident considering the nature of the exercise response that followed.
Police and fire department radios crackled as rumors swarmed among reaction teams to be on the lookout for two hostile individuals darting through a building, severely injuring anyone in their path. Two Nebraska Air National Guard Security Forces personnel spotted an abandoned and strangely parked vehicle outside the main hangar entrance. Teams cautiously entered the building. The Security Forces personnel and Lincoln Police Department strategically swept through the building, clearing rooms, notifying medical personnel of simulated victims.
When the threat was finally contained, Oestmann reflected on the exercise and the training it provided.
"A lot of the training that the military does is very structured - it has a very systematic flow," said Oestmann. "The incident dictates the dynamics. It's what I would consider controlled chaos. Once you gain control, leadership is able to make semi-informed decisions."
One of the exercise's greatest challenges was ensuring that communication flowed efficiently between the different agencies. The goal, said Oestmann, is to develop a network and partnership between the Nebraska National Guard and first response teams.
Oestmann added the only way to act prudently in a real-world situation is to practice as if it were really happening. He felt they achieved that goal.
"I think we tend to focus on the task we need to accomplish, not realizing the decision we either make or don't make has a ripple effect on other agencies," said Oestmann.
A table-top exercise with a similar scenario was conducted in March 2013, so Oestmann knew this real-world exercise would identify areas needing improvement.
"Some of the issues have already been vetted and worked through, such as a quicker way of communicating with the 911 system on base. The second is dealing with inter-operability. The military, as well as local law enforcement, has its own communication system," said Oestmann. "If we had an incident occur, we must have the opportunity to talk to other first responders so we can be one cohesive unit."
If communication is lacking during an emergency situation, everyone's safety is compromised, along with efficiency of all agencies involved, said Oestmann. Local agencies and the NEANG have developed and tested a system which allows the capability for first responders to communicate with each other.
According to Oestmann, advancing technology can greatly improve a reaction to an event like this - as long as one knows how to use it.
"We need to use technology to benefit and improve upon our processes," said Oestmann. "It's finding the people who have the know-how to make it work for their organization."
An added benefit of the exercise, Oestmann said, is that it really reinforces the bond the Nebraska National Guard shares with the community.
"I think it shows us, with local and state responders, that we are serious about heading this off and working with them," said Oestmann. "It also gives them the opportunity to use us as a resource."
"The cooperation we received from our civil authorities shows the vested interest they have in helping us and the vested interest we have in them and how we can work together as a team to ensure we meet the goal, keeping people safe," he added.
"Beyond the specifics of this scenario, exercises like this allow the Wing to practice as an organization recovering from and organizational shock and event like this creates," said Col. Bob Stevenson, 155th ARW vice commander. "Whether a man-caused or natural event, it allows us to take accountability, assess damage and then develop plans of action to restore operations and care for our people,"
Oestmann emphasized preparation is the key. Failing to plan for situations like this is not an option. Ultimately it's all about protecting our greatest asset - people.
"If you hide your head in the sand thinking it's never going to happen, that's when it's going to happen," said Oestmann. "If you are proactive, you are going to be ready in case a situation does occur. In the long run, that is how we save lives and property."