Operation Smoke Signal

Operation Smoke Signal III was a full-scale field exercise for a simulated tornado disaster occurring in the greater metro Denver area.  This was a follow up to a February 11 tabletop exercise by the same code name (phase II) hosted by the Disaster Management Institute at the Community College of Aurora.

Exercise Planning & Development

Over a series of seven planning sessions by O.M.E.G.A. personnel, the Incident Action Plan gradually took shape.  Original plans for the field exercise called for multiple sites, the Metro Fire Training Academy (MFTA) in Littleton and the Rocky Mountain Fire Academy (RMFA) in Denver-Stapleton.  The use of separate sites was in response to requests from the Amateur Radio Emergency Service group to participate in an exercise incorporating widely separated locations.  The rationale was to test the capabilities and effectiveness of ham radio equipment, personnel and training in a coordinated drill.

Originally set up as a multiple location drill, initial planning highlighted the difficulty in preparing two widely separated locations.  In essence, each location would function as a separate exercise operating on its own timeline with its own required resources.  As originally visualized, the only common planning factor between the two sites was the ham radio traffic.

The north site at RMFA is jointly used by Denver and Aurora Fire Departments.  Although we were not able to use the entire site, RMFA has unique characteristics that would provide a great learning experience for the CERT responders.  Among the unusual features available for the exercise was the first floor of the three-bay garage of a fully functioning firehouse.  Exercise planning for the north site continued through March and April while efforts to sign up CERT responders and role players for this location were met with poor results.

Ultimately, plans for north site, RMFA, had to be scuttled due to lack of participants.

O.M.E.G.A. was given unusually open access to MFTA, performing a detailed review of the site on three separate occasions.  As one would expect, the layout lends itself to drills, exercises and testing of firefighters.  Site headquarters included a large covered veranda used for registration/credentialing, one classroom upstairs used for exercise staff HQ and a communications center, one classroom downstairs with outside entry/exit used for staging of role players and a single-bay garage used for moulage, then reverting to in-play area after exercise started.  The hot-zone area included a five-story fire tower, several out buildings, an elaborate maze and numerous junk vehicles.  Use of the maze was restricted during exercise as it required advanced search skills to fully navigate.  A burn house was on the premises, but was judged to be too dirty for placement of role players, although the exterior of structure was in-play.  Also, a commuter plane fuselage was incorporated into exercise scenario.

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The crumpled fuselage of a crashed commuter plane, taken down by realistically bad weather. Photo by E Flynn.

With as many as 150 participants expected, parking was a concern.  Parking on-site is limited to a maximum of forty personal vehicles and the adjacent commercial building management group would not permit the use of their parking area within the commercial complex.  Fortunately, a local Lowe’s store offered the use of their overflow parking area which fit our needs perfectly.

The use of a real-life fire training academy has many advantages.  The training structures are unlike the usual venue for most disaster drills – schools, office and industrial buildings.  The training structures are grimy, smoke stained and caked with soot, and by their very nature of being training structures, have multiple floors with unusual floor plans.  Overall, the site presents itself as very realistic.

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A bird’s eye view of the MFTA from the top of the fire tower. Bad weather was a very prominent component of the exercise. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Exercise Review

Prior site visits and accurate maps greatly aided exercise set-up.  The moulage location, as well as separate staging areas for role-players and CERT responders, was quickly made operational.  Numerous areas within the “hot zone” were marked with CAUTION tape and OUT-OF-PLAY placards.  The unsettled weather on Friday evening deteriorated overnight to threatening skies on the day of the exercise.  The forecast called for rain in the afternoon and the staff was hopeful of finishing before the brunt of the bad weather arrived.

Check-in of arriving role players proceeded smoothly and they were then directed to the moulage area for makeup.  CERT responders and remaining incident staff were directed to their appropriate staging areas.  A small contingent of ARES personnel were organized to accompany exercise safeties to facilitate communications.  Prior to the exercise start, and in accordance with the Incident Action Plan, all participants received a safety briefing and the Rules-of-Engagement were discussed.  The exercise began at 9:00AM with hopes of decent weather and expectations of a successful conclusion.

Participants for this drill numbered:

OMEGA Staff – 10

CERT Responders – 21

Role players – 22

Event /Support Staff – 22

Total Participants – 75

Shortly after the responders formed up outside for selection of Incident Commander, Mother Nature took a turn for the worse.  By the time the IC was designated, the rains and wind gradually began building in intensity and did not let up until the drill was over nearly three hours later.

During the exercise planning, the possibility of inclement weather is always discussed and mitigating actions proposed.  Although the chance of rain was listed as moderate for later in the day, proper precautions were not in place for all participants.

Welfare of role players was a prime concern for the exercise safeties due to the nasty weather.  Most role players were stationed under cover, but a number volunteered to brave the elements by waiting in the rain and wind.  Several players near the plane fuselage lay in puddles of rainwater on the cold ground for over one hour with no apparent ill effects.  Surprisingly, all role players stayed in role throughout the exercise and the only real problem involved a CERT responder.

A cross-section of the CERT responders revealed a mixture of newly graduated players and seasoned responders.  The Incident Commander was a recent CERT graduate and eagerly started to organize the group.  Unfortunately, another recent CERT graduate wandered alone into the hot-zone within minutes of the exercise start and was immediately “put down”.  One of the first problems the IC encountered was retrieval of his missing responder.  But, it wouldn’t be the last of his problems!

Inclement weather is supposed to be factored into the planning for any CERT exercise.  The Incident Action Plan contains a Safety Analysis listing potential hazards and mitigations.  The Safety Analysis identified heavy rain as a hazard, but overlooked a moderate rain event, something that CERT responders should plan for.  Many of the responders were equipped to deal with the rain and wind, but not all.  The rain led the Incident Commander to set up the Incident Command Post and Medical Operations in the attached garage of the MFTA headquarters.  With better weather, both would most likely have been set-up outside in widely separated locations.  The proximity of IC to the Medical area didn’t adversely affect the drill during the early stages of the exercise, but would be a source of problems later.

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Incident Command made the best of a realistically bad situation. Phot by M. Khaytsus.

In spite of the rain, the exercise proceeded as planned.  Search teams returned with good information, allowing the Command Staff to develop effective rescue plans.  In short order, the rescue teams began extricating victims to the Medical Area and the exercise appeared to be ahead of schedule.  However, a new twist was about to be thrown at the responders.  The exercise Planner developed a series of “inject” scenarios that would impart changing conditions on all of the participants during the course of the exercise.  When most of the victims had been located and removed to Medical, the Planner injected a leaking fuel tank in the headquarters garage.  As previously mentioned, the Incident Command Post and Medical Area were located in this area and all participants had to relocate immediately.  The Medical Operations were relocated to the basement classroom in the headquarters, thus moving all victims out of the bad weather.  Relocation of the Command Post created another problem.

In their haste to move, the Command Post was relocated to an empty shed in the hot-zone with the command staff, except the Incident Commander, moving to the new location as a group.  However, the Incident Commander visited the Medical Operations area first and later crossed into the hot-zone alone, an obvious infraction of the Incident safety rules.  An exercise Safety immediately took him out of action on the spot, meaning he had to wait until he could be rescued by one of the search teams.  Unfortunately, while awaiting rescue in the rain and the wind, he became chilled due to improper clothing for the weather.  Once rescued, he assumed command again, but realized his decision making was erratic and he began to shiver uncontrollably, an indication of hypothermia.  Ultimately, the Incident Commander chilled to a point of stage two hypothermia and had to be replaced by the Operations Chief.  Shortly after this, the exercise was called and all participants gathered for a hotwash, or debriefing.

Exercise Hotwash

All participants were praised for braving the weather and attending the exercise.  The role players were amazing in their toughness under the bad conditions and every one stayed in character during the entire exercise.  With the exception of the responder Incident Commander, all responders continued to function effectively without any problems up to the finish.  Everyone noted how the bad weather added to the realism of the exercise and offered a new perspective on the difficulties faced by real life responders during real life emergencies.

Of particular note was an observation by one of the role players.  The individual in question, himself a recent graduate of the CERT program and playing a victim for the first time, was placed near the plane fuselage and fully exposed to the rain and wind.  He observed that numerous teams of responders either passed close to him, or approached him openly, but few spoke to him directly.  As a role player, he suggested that speaking to the victims was very important in keeping the victims spirits up.  He mentioned that his experience at this drill would definitely affect his actions as a responder in future exercises.  He will be more proactive in speaking to victims as a means of reassuring them that assistance is close by.

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