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State of Readiness

In January 2005, unusually heavy winter rainstorms melted a snowpack in the mountains of Utah and unleashed a series of floods that gushed across the border into Arizona, just north of the Grand Canyon. The Beaver Dam Wash and the northeast town of Littlefield bore the brunt of the high water that swept away 16 homes and knocked out the approaches to a major bridge. President George W. Bush declared Arizona’s Mohave County and others a disaster zone, and $3.7 million in federal assistance was allocated to the state to clean up the mess.

The best that could be said about the flood was that its timing was fortuitous. Only weeks before, federal, state, and local personnel had participated in a homeland security exercise aimed at assessing how the multiple groups of first responders could cope with a regional catastrophe centered on flooding. An emergency operations center (EOC) unit had been set up, complete with workstations featuring telephones, computers, and resource manuals.

Staffers had learned from that exercise, and many of the resources were now readily accessible to deal with the current real-life crisis. “We were able to function very well,” says Byron Steward, emergency manager for Mohave County. “It was a very good example of how an exercise could prepare you for the real event.”

Repercussions from Arizona’s November 2004 dry run are still being felt today as the state heads into its next series of preparedness measures, including TOPOFF (Top Officials), a national-level homeland security exercise that will take place in Phoenix and two other locales in 2007. Resulting modifications to Arizona’s homeland security preparedness, led by director Frank Navarette, have centered on communications, logistics, interaction with Mexican authorities, intelligence feeds and analysis, and the scope of the practice runs.

Opening Salvo

Arizona’s mid-November 2004 exercise, known as Operation REACT (Readiness Exercise Assessing Cyber Terrorism), was the opening salvo of the state’s current multiyear training program. It involved more than 1,300 people and 281 federal, state, and local agencies including the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Domestic Preparedness; the state of Arizona; the western counties of La Paz, Mohave, Yavapai, and Yuma; and the San Luis municipality in Sonora, Mexico.

“Exercises like this ensure we are ready for any large-scale emergency or disaster, no matter whether it is caused by a technical failure, a person, or Mother Nature,” said Governor Janet Napolitano at the time.

The exercise took nine months to plan and was designed to simulate a cyberthreat and physical attacks along Arizona’s portion of the 1,450-mile Colorado River network. The physical attacks were based on a failure of the spillway gates at the Davis and Parker dams, which—along with the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas—are the three major walls that Arizona has on the river.

Such a dam breach would result in the uncontrolled release of reservoir waters, creating flooding downstream at a rate of 300,000 cubic feet per second that would carry on past the border with Mexico. Communities housing approximately 100,000 people would be victimized by the torrent, including Needles, Lake Havasu City, Parker, and San Luis.

Diversionary events were also staged. A terrorist attack on a train with a propane car was held in Parker, a city in La Paz County, while across the border in Mexico, authorities had to grapple with the evacuation of cargo containing hazardous materials.

The Parker attack was representative of the no-holds-barred, realistic nature of the exercise. The scenario centered on a flatbed rail car wheeled into the train yard in the middle of the town. A smudge pot—a 55-gallon drum with oils—labeled “Propane” was lit on fire to provide great curls of black smoke. The accident scene was rounded out by a series of scattered junk cars and “victims” slathered in bloody makeup.

The first responders at the chaotic site were the Colorado River Indian Tribe Fire Department, who then called upon the Parker law enforcement authorities. Eventually the participants would include the sheriff’s office, the La Paz Regional Medical Center, the La Paz County Environmental Health Division, and other agencies.

About two months later, a train derailed in Salome, a town in La Paz County some 50 miles from Parker. The last car on the train that did not hop the tracks was full of propane. “All of the people who participated in the exercise in Parker were out on the scene,” says Jan Lindner, exercise officer for the state of Arizona. “They had learned what to do and what not to do during the exercise, and they were able to apply it during a real derailment.”

Five Easy Pieces

The November 2004 training run was the first time the Arizona homeland security office took a regional, rather than a statewide, approach to conducting an emergency exercise. The “Grand Canyon State” is now divided into five security regions encompassing from one to four counties each and representing the east, west, north, south, and central parts of the state.

Governor Napolitano pushed the regional division as a way to establish layered detection, prevention, response, and recovery capabilities. The concept allowed homeland security planners to look at needs on a regional basis, not on the basis of the needs of each individual community; that would help the state to cover more territory with the ever-dwindling federal funding. “It ensures that in every area of the state, within a short drive, there exists the necessary resources to respond to an event,” says Julie Mason, a state homeland security spokeswoman.

The regionalization scheme is also used to prioritize threats for large areas. The southern region consists of four border counties and, therefore, deals with frontier-related security issues. The western region is along the Colorado River and subsequently faces the threat of flooding. “Since homeland security requests need to be prioritized, we look at them at a regional level so these regions, which have common threats, can decide together” what their priorities are, says Mason.

Lessons Learned

Operation REACT turned out to be a bit ambitious in terms of how much the state attempted to achieve through a single training effort. They tried to run four fullscale operations in each county. Full-scale means boots-to-the-ground enactments with first responders, actors posing as victims, and the deployment of equipment and apparatus. The program overwhelmed planners and operatives alike.

Logistics. One problem was simple staff logistics. The size of the two-day exercise was such that controllers, evaluators, and sundry other participants had to be present in myriad locations separated by hundreds of miles.

The logistical challenge was magnified by the topography of the state. In the northwest of the state, where much of the 2004 exercise was conducted, the landscape is desert, with massive red-rock outcroppings and stubby cacti. When the summer is most intense, the heat reaches well over 100° F in the shade. Mountain ranges separate the valleys before dropping off to the Colorado River Basin.

“We were scrambling to get support staff, and we had people trying to travel between work and home from places like [centrally located] Prescott to [far-western] Parker—which is not a straight-line drive,” says Lindner.

Crawl, walk, run. The experience was an eyeopener. Training should be a “crawl, walk, run approach,” says Lindner. “In 2004 we failed to do the crawl and the walk, and we went straight to the run, without any tennis shoes on. It was a learning process.”

Since then, the state has taken a different approach. The practice runs are made up of only one full-scale operation, with the rest being tabletop exercises, or discussion-based groups in a nonstressful environment. Now, the state’s four-year exercise cycle creates a continual review of its homeland security capabilities.

Year one of the cycle starts with a seminar and a tabletop exercise, giving the players an idea of what to expect. Year two adds a functional exercise to the mix, and year three puts it all together with full-scale training. It achieves the objectives and it is far more cost-effective than doing the full-scale run of every scenario every time.

Communication breakdown. Operation REACT also exposed communications weaknesses that have since been addressed and largely rectified. Again, the rugged topography was partly culpable. “You can’t rely on a cell phone or a radio because of the mountains and where the towers are in Arizona,” says Lindner. “You can be in La Paz County standing in one spot, then turn around and all of a sudden lose communication.” Cell phone towers are largely absent in large swaths of territory where the exercise took place. Network reception varies according to the county. This meant that communications would suddenly cease.

To employ cellular phones, more than one network provider had to be used; Nextel functioned well in La Paz County, while Verizon was the best choice in Mohave County. A related problem was the interoperability of communications systems among first responders from different regions of the state operating on different radio frequencies.

The introduction of a set of special communications vans was the solution to the radio-frequency glitch and served to streamline the overall communications system. Operation REACT was the beta test for the mobile communications vans. Two were debuted during the exercise and functioned as expected when run through a series of tests; five exist now. There is a van at the ready in cities throughout each of the five regions: Kingman, Tucson, Globe, Holbrook, and Phoenix.

Each unit is a mobile emergency operations center providing wireless communication—both voice and data—from remote locations. The interiors of the communications vehicles feature multiple workstations and work areas in support of field operations.

The vans are outfitted with multiple public safety and amateur radios, along with an ACU-1000 Audio Bridge that is capable of patching different radio systems together on a common line, or net. The ACU-1000 Intelligent Interconnect System allows interoperability between multiple radio systems functioning on different frequencies such as HF, VHF, or UHF, and other media including radios, landline telephones, cellular, and satellite.

Four of the vans are 24-feet long and cost $255,000. One is a 40-footer priced at $550,000. The longer van has the same systems as the others, but it contains larger workstations where multiple people can sit.

“These vehicles can be deployed anywhere and not only help with interoperable communications, but with their satellite, they provide Internet access,” says Judy Kioski, the public information officer for the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. “They can provide the infrastructure to be a mobile emergency operations center or a command center.”

The vans—called TOADs because someone in the state communications section thought that sounded like a good code name—have become a cornerstone of the state’s emergency response operations. “We have deployed the van on numerous occasions, for wildfires, floods, search and rescue, and power outages during extreme heat,” says Steward.

One TOAD was used last summer as a command center in Bullhead City when 115° F temperatures knocked out power. The van was there to ensure that first responders were able to talk to each other as they went about distributing aid and restoring power.

In March of this year, a van was dispatched when a storm dumped a record 1.40 inches of rain in one day on Phoenix after an unprecedented 143 days without precipitation. That heavy weather caused flash floods and power outages. At the same time, snow coated the mountains and highlands of the northern and eastern parts of the state, causing accidents and additional outages.

Another van was put in service during the Black Mountain Complex Fire in June, when 12,000 acres were set ablaze by lightning. In each case, the vans made communications among the various responding agencies possible and helped to ensure coordinated recovery efforts.

Postmortems. After every major exercise in Arizona, meetings are held to identify lessons learned. The original goals are assessed. “We go back and look at our previous objectives and whether we achieved them,” says Lindner. If an objective was not achieved, it is targeted for practice in the next drill.

Unprecedented Fusion

Operation REACT also marked the first appearance of the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC), one of the first partnerships in the nation between state, local, and federal agencies designed to collect, analyze, and disseminate terrorist intelligence and information.

Called a “fusion center,” it is the state’s central analysis hub for real-time crime and terrorism intelligence. It is staffed by more than 200 detectives, special agents, analysts, and other personnel from 34 agencies. ACTIC shares intelligence with neighboring states New Mexico, California, and Texas.

ACTIC was in its infancy during Operation REACT. Perhaps that was the key reason that the intelligence the center sent to be used during the exercise was vague, resulting in a lot of phone calls from law enforcement agencies asking for clarification. Since then, ACTIC has increased the size of its team of analysts and has scripted better intelligence, which is sent out more frequently and more abundantly during the course of the exercises.

During REACT, no more than ten bulletins were dispatched describing the interception of chatter about potential attacks. The messages were sent starting fifteen days before the exercise kicked off. Subsequent exercises have seen the dispatch of up to 25 bulletins, starting 45 days in advance of the enactments. “The earlier we can get them [ACTIC] involved, the more they can test different layers of their system,” says Lindner.

Distribution. Just as important as the quality of the analysis is whether it finds its way into the right hands. In 2004 it was discovered that ACTIC’s intelligence was flowing out to the counties and local jurisdictions, but the information was not filtering down into the fire departments and other first responders.

“Now we’re making sure that intel is getting out to everyone who may be out on the ground,” says Lindner. “They are the eyes and ears of the operation.”

Subsequent training exercises have also involved more players. “We’ve cast a wider net,” says Kioski. “We’re trying to train additional people out there about emergency operations centers and the incident command system.” Absorbed into the exercises are more mayors—who are likely to be grilled in interviews with the media as to what is happening during emergencies—and boards of supervisors, who may have to ask the state for reparations money and, therefore, need to be in the know.

For each of the state’s practice scenarios, whether tabletop discussion or fullscale drill, a conscious effort is made to fit the hypothetical incident to the potential threats that might occur in that region. And as if to prove that the state has done its homework in assessing those threats, real-life situations uncannily continue to emulate the drills.

“We did a simulated hostage situation in Phoenix this year, and two weeks later, lo and behold, we had a hostage standoff in Phoenix,” says Lindner. “It unfolded just as in the exercise a few weeks before.” Thanks to the training, the hostages and their captor emerged from the ordeal unscathed after several hours.

Robert Elliott is an assistant editor at Security Management.