Container Clinic Deployment for Operation Golden Phoenix
Back in 2007 & 2008 DLR’s Randy Roberson was keenly involved with something called “Operation Golden Phoenix. It was the very first deployment of our Containerized Mobile Medical Clinics and Disaster Situational Awareness Communications Systems. The following is an Op-Ed that appeared in the New York Times shortly thereafter which speaks volumes about the need for these types of disaster exercises and why we have been proud to take an active roll in them.
May 18, 2009
All Disasters Are Local
By STEVEN T. GANYARD
AMERICA seems to have dodged a bullet with the swine flu epidemic — yet this was more the result of the virus being less deadly than feared rather than of any government coordination.
Despite billions spent since 9/11, we are still not well prepared to react to disease outbreaks, terrorist attacks and natural disasters — a fact Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has been frank about in her brief time on the job. She has ruffled feathers by criticizing a $25 million national-security exercise the department undertook in 2007 as being too expensive, too unrealistic and “too removed from a real-world scenario.” But her frustration is well founded and indicative of larger fundamental flaws.
The big problem is that coordination among state and local governments and Washington has been only incrementally improved in recent years. The national exercise system is broken, focusing too much on senior officials and neglecting training at the state and local levels. There is a better way.
Several years ago, while in command of a Marine air group in Southern California, I looked for ways for us to help local authorities during a natural disaster. What I found was a disturbing lack of coordination among city, county and regional agencies, and independent organizations. Marines had the training to be of great help in, say, an earthquake, but it was not clear where we would fit in with all the other agencies involved.
Since every government agency is given a budget for training, we wondered why we didn’t all train together. We found our first partners in the City and County of Los Angeles. Together we devised a collaborative disaster response training event we called Golden Phoenix. Each year since 2006, we have undertaken a realistic and detailed disaster exercise that plays out over several days and involves disparate organizations dedicated to a common goal — saving American lives. The 2006 and ’07 Golden Phoenix events simulated the effects of devastating earthquakes in Los Angeles and Orange County; last year’s operation involved a mock bioterrorism attack on San Diego that evolved into a widespread medical emergency.
From the start, a key has been making participation voluntary and open to any organization, public or private, willing to use its own funds. Because we didn’t ask for complete control or mandate performance benchmarks, we found plenty of groups eager to participate and willing to experiment. We had hospitals, green-energy firms, software developers, communications groups and aerospace companies — even an international cargo-shipping line — as well as nongovernmental groups like the Red Cross involved.
We also found that there are economies to be had in this collaborative approach. Golden Phoenix 2008 involved more than 150 local, state, federal, tribal, academic, nongovernmental and private sector entities, yet it required no additional spending outside the various groups’ training budgets (well, except for $535 spent on coffee and doughnuts).
Golden Phoenix is based on the premise that, like politics, all disasters are local. That is, improved safety and security for the people of St. Louis is best created in St. Louis, not Washington. More attention needs to be paid to the local and regional levels if we are “to prepare for and respond to natural and man-caused disasters with speed, skill and effectiveness,” as Ms. Napolitano said in her confirmation hearing.
In responding to crises, the most persistent problem is that of collaboration — people with information and equipment who are unable to share it with those who need it most. The means to effective collaboration is social networking and exploiting the natural mutual attractions of communities with common interests.
Federal agencies, however, often rely on the sort of top-down, set-piece exercises Secretary Napolitano rightly denounced. Usually intended to validate broad protocols with mandates to meet fixed goals, they induce fear of failure and rarely allow — much less encourage — experimentation. Participants are usually reluctant to try new techniques because of a risk of institutional embarrassment. Worse, performance in formal exercises is often tied to future financing; thus the threat of lost jobs or promotions discourages adaptation and modernization.
The Marines in my unit overcame any fears on the part of other participants by earning their trust and acting as a neutral third party. We functioned as social lubricant and catalyst, not dictating terms or seeking to control, but rather creating trust in exercises in which there was no penalty for failure. In one instance, a senior California official expressed amazement that we were able to get police officers and sheriff’s deputies, members of two cultures often at odds, to collaborate. As one Los Angeles Police Department captain said, “You have helped us more in one day than the feds have in 10 years.”
The personal relationships created by Golden Phoenix have had a real payoff: they have been instrumental in combating California wildfires, improving communications between government agencies and rescue workers in Los Angeles, even saving a climber’s life on Mount Whitney. Two participants — Angel Flight West, which provides free air travel for those with severe medical problems, and Project K.I.D., which aids children during natural disasters — formed a partnership to pre-screen pilots who can be at the ready to reunite children and their parents separated by disaster.
The degree of personal trust at the tactical level, not money or machines, is the single most important determinant of how well communities will deal with threats and disasters. But these relationships must be established in training so that first responders are not handing out business cards to one another on the way to the disaster. In addition, preparation can sort out any questions as to what the military’s proper role will be in a disaster and spare us the sort of legal haggling that helped hamstring the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
In Golden Phoenix, because we are not tied to performance, we have been able to conduct diverse experiments that directly address the needs of citizens affected by disaster, like how to deal with large displaced populations, surges in patients arriving at hospitals, and reuniting families after a disaster. In the middle of an exercise in which a port had been contaminated by a bio-weapons attack, I watched as a ponytailed neuroscientist gathered his impromptu team — a software engineer, a medical researcher and a firefighter — in the back of a Marine helicopter to work on an innovative solution for urban decontamination.
In another instance, we discovered that If our simulated attack had been an actual disaster, people might have died before communications were restored. Solving these and more complex problems before a disaster occurs will not come from doing senior-level “table-top” exercises but from hands-on training at the regional and local level. In responding to disasters, Americans must look beyond government for help. Most of the critical infrastructure of the country is in private hands, and much of humanitarian relief is provided by local churches and relief charities. We need “whole of society” not just “whole of government” responses.the adapters we had wouldn’t connect civilian radios with military ones, which work on their own frequency bands. So a Marine, a firefighter and a civilian Navy employee hopped in a truck, purchased some parts from a local electronics store and, working in a tent pitched beside a hot and dusty desert airport, built a cable adapter that finally established civil-military communications. It was a $25 solution to a multimillion- dollar problem.
That on-the-fly breakthrough came in handy in fighting fires outside San Diego in 2007, when the cable was used to help establish civil-military interoperability.
Golden Phoenix made clear that state and local officials do not want imposed, top-down solutions. They prefer what they would find at a local hardware store: readily available tools and materials, and assistance from experts who can help them find their own solutions. The federal government can be most helpful by providing what state and local officials are often short of in an emergency: transportation, communication bandwidth and portable electric power. Generally, other kinds of federal “help” can be disruptive.
In encouraging local and regional training, the new administration has a chance to make the American people safer and government more effective — without increased spending. Secretary Napolitano clearly sees the need, but it is going to take a willingness to challenge entrenched bureaucracies and listen to new approaches and ideas. Unlike the swine flu, our next national emergency might not take care of itself.
Stephen T. Ganyard is a former deputy assistant secretary of state and Marine Corps fighter pilot.