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All Together Now

SINCE 9-11, authorities at all levels of government recognize the need to better coordinate first responder agency efforts in a crisis. One state that has had success in setting up and operating a joint forces headquarters to facilitate that type of cooperation is North Carolina. The task of helping to set up the facility fell to Colonel (Ret.) William E. Johnson, who was originally tasked with a narrower mission: helping the National Guard Bureau, which oversees the activities of the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard, to consolidate their operations in North Carolina into a single headquarters building. The situation at the time was that North Carolina had two facilities, one for the Army National Guard and one for the Air National Guard.

The first challenge was the need for adequate space. The larger of the two existing facilities would be far too small to accommodate the new consolidated National Guard headquarters. “We needed 240,000 square feet, and we only had 90,000,” says Johnson, who now serves as facility coordinator. The team—which included Johnson, the adjutant general of the National Guard Bureau, and several support staff members—agreed that the answer would be to start from scratch and build a facility suited to the mission. So, Johnson’s first task back in 2003 was to find land on which the National Guard could build a new facility.

There was a parcel of land owned by the National Guard that was adjacent to one of the North Carolina National Guard’s existing facilities, so the Guard asked if the state would donate extra land to add to that parcel. After the governor approved the granting of extra land, the National Guard had a total of 18 acres to build on. With initial funding in hand, the design of the building began in 2005. It took two years to complete the design of the three-story building, which was to accommodate the consolidated two state branches of the National Guard, plus allow room for growth.

The facility design included office space as well as an emergency operations center, a media briefing room, an auditorium, dining facilities, and a weapons training center. But just as the design was being completed in 2007, the North Carolina Emergency Management (NCEM) department contacted the National Guard and asked to share space. NCEM was then located in downtown Raleigh, where parking was tight and space was insufficient. In return for being allowed to share the space, NCEM would turn over its $8 million in state funds to go toward the project, which entailed redesigning the facility.

Johnson agreed and the building was redesigned, with the NCEM getting the ground floor. “This seemed perfect because the National Guard’s emergency operations center was already there,” he says.

But that was not the end of the story. The design was almost complete again in 2008 when the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) asked to join the party. The NCDOT wanted to collocate its transportation operations center at the new facility. Part of the draw for the NCDOT was that the National Guard and NCEM were already there. NCDOT brought $6 million in funds to the project.

The addition of the NCDOT threw a monkey wrench into the design plans, however. According to federal antiterrorism force protection standards, there had to be 85 feet of standoff distance from the emergency operations center to the roadway. Expanding the footprint of the building would interfere with the standoff distance. So the building was redesigned a third time to put the emergency operations center underground with more office space on top. Johnson took the redesign opportunity to make the building compliant with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards by adding in a green roof.

“Then we got stuck,” says Johnson. Once funding was obtained from all other sources, the facility was left with $39 million to be provided by the National Guard. At this point, however, the National Guard Bureau learned that the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) had designated that the funds be used elsewhere. BRAC moved the facility’s construction from 2010 to 2012.

Fortunately, shortly after this decision, Congress approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—otherwise known as the stimulus package. “Under the Act, to get funds, you had to have a shovel-ready project. This one was the only project in the state that was shovel-ready. Just waiting on money,” says Johnson. With the help of Rep. David Price (DNC), Johnson was able to procure the $39 million necessary to complete the facility. Funding came through on May 8, 2009, the construction contract was completed by the end of May, and building began in early June. The building was completed two years later, on time and on budget.

By the time the facility was operational in October 2011, even more agencies had joined in. In addition to the National Guard, NCEM, and NCDOT, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol decided to collocate its communications center there, and the North Carolina Turnpike Authority also moved to the ground floor of the facility. Both groups also share in the emergency operations center. The NCDOT gave up some space for the Turnpike Authority and NCEM gave up space for the Highway Patrol. “We are at capacity now,” says Johnson.

Having all these agencies under one roof is a first for the state. “This is the first time we’ve put a facility together that has the agencies together,” says Johnson.

The agencies all make use of the facility’s features. The emergency operations center includes a large projection screen. The screen would be used by all agencies to coordinate a response should the center be activated during an emergency. For example, the screen can be used to monitor and track cameras along all major highways and routes in the state.

Alerts are sent to the NCDOT with the latest information. “This would be a great benefit to the National Guard in routing convoys during emergencies,” explains Johnson. “We had some real problems during Hurricane Floyd. We wound up sending convoys into dead ends because of flooding and getting them back to where they needed to be was difficult. Now we will know what routes are viable.”

Adjacent to the emergency operations center is the media briefing room. This is where the governor will go for briefings during an emergency. The proximity to the operations center will ensure that the governor always has the latest information. “To have this all together so everyone can contribute and then share information is incredible,” says Johnson.

The large auditorium seats 400 people and is available for use by all building occupants. The facility also has a 150-person dining facility that is available to all employees. (The large dining facility was designed into the building to feed the 300 extra people who will be on-site when the emergency management center is activated.)

A laser weapons engagement skills center is another feature. The center includes multiple simulation programs for combat environments as well as for law enforcement officers. The simulations can be tailored for anything from basic handgun skills to combat. The facility also has a physical fitness center, which is available to all partner agency employees.

The consolidation has both financial and tactical advantages. “We moved folks in from other locations who had been spread out in four different facilities. Only one was owned by the state, and the others were leased. The result was savings for the state,” he says.

To make sure that the facility continues to serve everyone’s interests, all the agencies have to have a voice in decisions. With that in mind, Johnson established an installations commander’s council composed of representatives from every agency. The council discusses issues such as parking and the use of facility resources.

While the groups operating out of the joint facility have not had to face a real emergency since locating there together, the National Guard has run two exercises to see how the facility would work in a crisis. Both were done in early September to coincide with the Democratic National Convention (DNC), which was held in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The first exercise, Operation Vigilant Guard, took place one week before the DNC and was focused on the headquarters facility. During the exercise, the facility’s security level was increased to test security procedures. The main difference was that under the elevated threat level, all vehicles entering the facility were searched. (Under normal conditions, only contractors or visitors undergo a vehicle search.) National Guard employees worked with partner agencies including emergency management, department of transportation, and state highway patrol to implement the procedures.

The biggest issue with the vehicle searches was the time of year. “It’s near hunting season,” explains Johnson. “People in the South keep their guns in their vehicles during hunting season because they often go hunting before or after work.” But no one is allowed to have a weapon on the complex unless they are a law enforcement official. Despite warning employees, guards had to turn a few away. “They had to go back home, put their hunting weapons away, and come back.”

The exercise also revealed some logistical issues. The facility has two main guard stations that stay open 24-7. The stations are equipped with proximity card readers, which employees use to enter the facility. Visitors are stopped and vehicles are searched. “During the exercise, we learned that to search all vehicles, we need another lane because traffic is slowed down too much,” says Johnson.

The facility is also looking to expand the vehicle inspection area dedicated to searching larger vehicles, such as delivery trucks. “We need a bigger area to conduct searches and get the vehicles off the highway,” Johnson explains.

The second exercise, known simply as the DNC Exercise, involved the emergency operations center at the joint forces headquarters and three teams stationed around the state, in readiness for any emergency, while the DNC was underway. The teams were located in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Fayetteville. These sites were set up with military police to handle any type of incident. “The exercise was conducted in conjunction with the convention so if the National Guard was called in, everyone would already be in place,” says Johnson.

The groups liaised with national groups as well as state agencies via their representatives at the joint forces headquarters’ emergency center. As a part of the exercise, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which does not have an office at the headquarters facility, joined in. FEMA placed satellite vans on the joint forces site, and it had representatives in the emergency operations center. “This put all the players together.” says Johnson. “The military was there, FEMA was there, NCDOT was involved. I think it was a big plus,” Johnson says.

“Communications were the best I’ve ever seen when agencies are joined together to work one event.” he adds. He attributes this primarily to having all parties on-site at the communications center at the facility. “If there were tweaks to be done, they could work it out face-to-face instead of later, over the telephone,” he explains. When you can look at someone eye-to-eye and discuss the problem, that’s going to help across the board.”

Johnson believes that such joint forces facilities are the way of the future. “My advice would be to build into the facility as many coordinating agencies as necessary to cover all aspects of disaster response,” he says. “The lead agency should ensure that everyone involved supports and understands the coordination plan and agrees up front to specified terms of operation. This will maximize the potential of the facility.”