Operation Snake Eyes

O.M.E.G.A. joined the Colorado Federal Executive Board (CFEB), the Rocky Mountain Intergovernmental Continuity Council, to help plan the Mile High DICE 2011 FEMA Region VIII exercise.  It was the CFEB’s strong desire to have volunteer organizations participate in this disaster management and continuity planning exercise.

DICE is an acronym that stands for: Denver Inter-agency Continuity Exercise.

For most participants in Mile High DICE 2011, the exercise started the evening of April 12, 2011 with a number of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) detonating at key areas along the Colorado Front Range, primarily within the metropolitan Denver area.

As was explained to the CFEB, it is very hard to get volunteers to participate in large scale exercises during the week.  We asked and were given permission to hold the CERT component of the exercise on Saturday, April 9.

Operation Snake Eyes was one part of four activities in O.M.E.G.A.’s participation in the DICE simulation.  For a complete description, please see the Mile High DICE 2011 article on page 7.

Since the parent exercise was called DICE, we played off the name for our exercise with a pair of six-sided dice displaying ones on top – a pair of ones is called Snake Eyes by gamblers.

Operation Snake Eyes was a full scale CERT exercise for the CERT members in the North Central Region (NCR).  The NCR is organized around ten counties (and their cities, districts, towns and municipalities): Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, Douglas, Elbert, Gilpin and Jefferson.  Also participating in the exercise were Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), Civil Air Patrol (CAP), Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), Rampart Search and Rescue (SAR), Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

The Operation Snake Eyes scenario was based on an improvised explosive device (IED) detonating at a large public venue, in our case a rock concert.  The exercise was hosted by the Cherry Creek School District at Legacy Stadium in Aurora, Colorado on April 9, 2011.  Role players and CERT members were mixed in the audience.  Members of the Policy Group (aka City and County government representatives) were also in attendance watching the exercise.

No More Excuses

Local favorite No More Excuses in action at Operation Snake Eyes. Photo by G. Freeman.

Local Denver band, No More Excuses, volunteered to assist us with simulating a public venue event and donated their time and talent to make the exercise a success.  At 2 PM, with the concert in full swing, an IED was detonated at the base of the press box in the west stands of the stadium.  Most participants later noted that the explosion could not be heard over the music, but the smoke and debris from the detonation were clearly visible.

Legacy Stadium has a capacity of 5,000.  For this exercise we made the assumption that the band was playing to a full house.  The result of the explosion was four fatalities (including the bomber) and about fifty injuries.  We also assumed that fifty to sixty volunteer responders would be in the audience.  The remainder of the spectators would self-evacuate or be evacuated from the stadium.  It must be stressed that in the real world volunteer responders are mandated not to respond to terror or technological based incidents, but in this case we were allowed to simulate a passive deployment by responders who were already at the venue and stepped up to help until professional responders arrive.

Snake Eyes Staging

Teams organizing at the start of Operation Snake Eyes. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

As the responders started to get organized in the wake of the explosion, the rest of the crowd was set in place to wail and whine until they were found, triaged, escorted out of the “hot zone” or wait for transportation for their complete evacuation.

We were looking to see if the responders would be able to function in these three areas:

1. Concepts

2. Organization

3. Functionality

The goal of the responders was to see if they were able to follow and adhere to the logical phases of a response:

1. Gather the Facts

2. Assess the Damage

3. Consider the Probabilities

4. Assess the Situation

5. Establish Priorities

6. Make Decisions

7. Develop Plans of Action

8. Take Action

9. Evaluate Progress

Incident Command

Responders at the Incident Command Post ran the operation from a Medical Reserve Corps mobile command trailer. Photo by D. Haskin.

They needed to do all this and follow the protocols of the Incident Command System (ICS).  What is ICS?  It a systematic tool used for the command, control and coordination of emergency response.  Firefighters, law enforcement, public health and many others use this tool.  It allows all responders to speak the same language and follow the same protocols.

As the exercise director, I was particularly interested if the responders minimally followed the ICS guidelines with this team structure:

Incident Commander

1. Command Staff

a. Admin Officer (Note taker)

b. Safety Officer

c. Liaison Officer

d. Public Information Officer

2. General Staff

a. Operations Chief

b. Logistics Chief

c. Planning Chief

In planning and executing these exercises, O.M.E.G.A. uses ICS as well.  We find ICS works very well for exercise development.  It helps us continuously apply the ICS principles, stay current on the standardized methods and, most importantly, practice what we preach.

Functionality covers these areas:

1. Search for and triage of the survivors.

2. Stabilization of the survivors and management of their injuries.

3. Transport of the injured to a medical staging area.

4. Medical treatment of the survivors outside the hot zone.

At the end of the first hour after the detonation of the IED, the responders still looked as if they were either herding cats or trying to corral freshly hatched sea turtles.  The Policy Group was concerned that a sense of urgency was not being displayed and the responders still seemed disorganized.  It was recommended that we should start over with a more direct mentorship.

I turned to the exercise planning team to receive their feed back.  Whereas each one agreed that there was a large degree of disorganization, this really has not been too much of a deviation from what we have seen since we started facilitating these exercises in 2006.  We felt that we needed to let the responders work things out.  Mistakes were made, but in a real disaster you can’t recall the tornado or put things back to do the earthquake over.  A part of the learning experience is fixing the mistakes in the course of an evolving incident.  To quote our exercise operations chief, “We still have two hours.  Leave them alone.”

Search and Rescue

Responders packaging a patient for transport. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

And in the second hour, as if on cue, the responders started to jell as a team.  After all, when you have pockets of strangers coming together, group dynamics still have to be considered (groups will form, then storm, go to norm and then finally perform).

From my perspective, anytime you throw a bunch of strangers into the mix and they start working together, it is a success!  The challenge is to work out group dynamics to perform effectively.

Did they ace the test?  No.  This is why we need to come together again in the next exercise in November.  But over all, I thought they did very well under the circumstances.

I would like to thank the Cherry Creek School District and Randy Councell for arranging for the use of Legacy Stadium and the surrounding buildings.  I would also like to thank the band, No More Excuses, for the entertainment and for being the focal point of the exercise and distracting the responders from the anticipation of a coming explosion.  A thank you goes to the Salvation Army for providing snacks, drinks and dinner for all the participants and the American Red Cross Mile High Chapter for the use of their emergency communication vehicle.

As always, the moulage team once again did a wonderful job in making the injuries look real, adding a very critical element to the success of the exercise.  Our stoic role players took their roles to heart and patiently and eloquently went with the flow, helping provide an educational experience.  ARES, CAP, CERT, MRC and SAR came together from across the metropolitan area.  Most of these individuals never worked with or met one another before and the successful conclusion of the exercise is a testament to their capabilities.

A special thank you goes to the members of the Policy Group for their belief in citizen involvement in emergency response and for their support of volunteer programs in the region.  And last but not least, I would like to thank the members of O.M.E.G.A, who put in countless hours in preparing for this exercise.

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