JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
National Guard Civil Support Team units from twelve states, along with partnering local, state, and federal agencies and organizations, totaling approximately 250 people, participated in Exercise ORCA 2021 at various training locations in Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and Seward, May 17-20.
Exercise ORCA 2021 was designed to allow all participants to respond to hazardous materials incidents, test interoperability between the agencies, increase working relationships, and practice requests for assistance methods.
“We’re conducting an all-hazards, multi-CST, multi-agency exercise,” explained Col. Anthony Mortrud, commander of the 103rd Civil Support Team, Alaska National Guard. “This particular exercise is the largest chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear exercise held in Alaska.”
This year’s ORCA 2021 was unprecedented with the number of National Guard CST units participating, and included units from California, Connecticut, Colorado, Idaho, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin, Alaska’s 103rd CST, as well as the 10th Homeland Response Force from Washington and the 8th CBRN Enhanced Response Force-Package from Colorado.
The Alaska National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, 176th Civil Engineer Squadron’s Emergency Management section, Joint Operations Center, and Joint Staff Operations Section also participated. The overall planning and execution of Exercise ORCA 2021 was facilitated by the 196th Infantry Brigade, U.S. Army Pacific.
Additional local agencies and organizations involved in ORCA 2021 included the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Matanuska-Susitna Emergency Management, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Major Marine Tours, Alaska Railroad, Anchorage Fire Department, Alaska State Emergency Operations Center, University of Alaska-Anchorage, Port of Seward, and the Port of Alaska-Anchorage.
“Those are key relationships that need to be developed during an exercise,” elaborated Mortrud, “because you don’t want to do that during a real-world event. You have to work all of those bugs out before something happens, and that interagnecy play helps by developing tactics, training, and procedures between us and our civilian counterparts.“
National Guard CST units were established in 1998 to deploy rapidly to assist a local incident commander in determining the nature and extent of a weapons of mass destruction attack or incident; provide expert technical advice on CBRN response operations; and help identify and support the arrival of follow-on state and federal military response assets.
“The value in this exercise is being able to work with other CSTs and see different ways of completing the same tasks,” said Lt. Col. David Foster, commander of the 52nd CST, Ohio National Guard. “Some might be a little more efficient or effective in completing that task, so it’s a way of learning from each other. And because the scenarios here are unique, we have to get the right people together and think through the problem, develop a course of action, and execute it.”
During the exercise, participants were faced with a number of challenges to work through, which included identifying illicit and dangerous substances, responding to simulated attacks and disasters, and coordinating with participating agencies to work through each scenario.
“They have a train derailment, a uranium dirty bomb, and a host of other problems to contend with at the different locations,” explained Warrant Officer candidate Jack Androsky, current operations noncommissioned officer in charge with the 10th HRF, Washington National Guard. “This exercise is designed to stress everybody out, and teach them how to manage chaos.”
Aside from working through all-hazard events during the exercise, another objective of the exercise was testing out the capabilities of the National Guard CBRN Enterprise Response Information Management System (NG-CIMS) ), a mission management and communications platform. ORCA 2021 was the largest deployment of the system to date. NG CIMS is used in real-world incidents and events, including the 59th presidential inauguration this year, by multiple agencies involved in a scenario for synchronized interoperability.
The exercise in Alaska this week was the first time the system was used for multiple, simultaneous incidents, and it was accomplished on a large scale at three geographically separated locations.
“The complexity of how the system was utilized is a first,” said Sgt. Maj. Gary Mauk, NG CIMS technical advisor for National Guard Bureau. “It was being used to respond to a large, catastrophic event in order to share information between multiple sites and up the chain of command.”
NG CIMS includes software, communications networks and hardware, to consolidate, manage and share information, allow reporting for personnel, logistics, operations data and more, and provide multiple communications tools for incident responders, to vastly improve incident management capability, minimize errors, and speed information flow.
“At our location [in Seward], we responded to a railcar and vessel anchored in the bay to conduct site characterization and sampling in order to identify hazards and provide mitigation strategies to the incident commander,” said U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Steve Freeland, noncommissioned officer in charge of the 102nd CST, Oregon National Guard. “We also sent up all of our scene findings to higher echelons for analysis and possible linkages to other exercise locations and events using the NG CIMS.”
Androsky explained that by overwhelming the exercise participants with a host of problems and creating scenarios where communication and coordination are critical to achieve the objectives, it better prepares everyone involved to serve the communities each organization comes from.
“We’re a quick reaction force for our worst day ever, and we may have a worst day ever eventually,” said Androsky. “These types of preparedness exercises are key; the thing we have to realize is that we don’t know who is going to show up on day zero. If you have enough people preparing themselves to meet before the exercise, when the day an all-hazard happens, you already have relationships built and you have some training.
“This is why these are super important for the community, because we live in these communities, and we care about them.”