The Year of the Tornado

In February of 2012 O.M.E.G.A. took part in a day long tabletop exercise hosted by the Disaster Management Institute, which was designed to help us understand and evaluate our communications capabilities.  This may sound like a simple experiment, but the reality of communications in a disaster is far more complicated than simply picking up a phone.

For starters, the concept behind the simulation was that the metropolitan area suffered a complete infrastructure failure, resulting in loss of the electrical grid and ultimately every piece of equipment that would rely on it.  With power gone, all utilities that we take for granted disappeared as well – electricity to power homes and offices, street lighting, telephones, water, sewer, gas.  It was as if the metropolitan area descended into the stone age.

Operation Smoke Signal Damage Map

Operation Smoke Signal Damage Map

The disaster that hit Denver was an EF5 tornado with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour, turning into rubble everything in its path.  The possibility of a tornado this strong in the metropolitan area has long been debated in the emergency management community and while believed to be very unlikely, is considered a possibility for the Front Range.  Precedent for storms this strong does exist in Colorado.  Back in 1924 a powerful tornado, estimated to be borderline F4/F5, hit Thurman, Colorado, killing ten people and devastating the farming town, making this tornado the strongest and deadliest in Colorado history.  Thurman was not resilient enough to survive this event.

Tornados in our recent memory – Holly (2007) and Windsor (2008) – both rated EF3 in power and Aurora’s 2009 tornado was a strong EF1.  As recently as June of 1988 an F3 tornado touch down in the southern part of Denver.

The scenario was very plausible and we were left with the absolute basics – our go kits – equipped to last 48 to 96 hours, depending on the resourcefulness and determination of the kit’s owner, and a charged radio.  The teams participating in this exercise included ARES District 22, ARES District 27, Brighton CERT, Clear Creek CERT, Colorado STAR MRC, Heritage Eagle Bend CERT, Rampart Search and Rescue and, of course, O.M.E.G.A.

Operation Smoke Signal Tabletop

Participants in the Operation Smoke Signal II tabletop exercise. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

The immediate painful realization was that we are unable to communicate with our served agencies because all infrastructure that we rely on was gone.  The second uncomfortable piece of information was that we are unable to communicate with our own members beyond a certain range and are ultimately unable to take inventory and identify who is alive and well from our own teams.  The path of the mile wide tornado did pass over the houses of members of various groups and also across cache locations where several teams stored their gear.  Adding to the complexity of getting to cache locations across fields of rubble that used to be neighborhoods was the realization that the gear was irretrievably gone.  And our one final pain point was that we were potentially working in neighborhoods where other teams operated and had no established relationships with these groups.  Or a means of communicating with them.  Most of the teams fully lacked communications interoperability.

Lessons learned from this simulation were taken home by all of the participating teams to evaluate and understand existing weakness in capabilities and to develop a plan to solve at least some of the problems identified.

The goal of the simulation is not to develop a quick one time fix, but to look into the future and understand how communications capabilities are impacted by disaster and how to best leverage them to remain an effective team in the event of a catastrophic incident.  A part of this long term plan is to establish a better relationship with other teams in the area and to train jointly in order to be more effective when responding to disasters.

Year of the Tornado

“Year of the Tornado” exercise sequence for Operation Smoke Signal.

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