By Donna Miles
SAN DIEGO, Aug. 25, 2006 – More than 600 military members, Defense Department employees and contractors, first responders, nongovernmental organization representatives and technologists are here this week exploring better ways to coordinate their disaster response. Strong Angel III, the third in a series of disaster response exercises, revolves around the scenario of a worldwide viral pandemic that stretches emergency response efforts toward the breaking point. At the same time, a terrorist network launches a wave of cyber-attacks that disable communications throughout the United States when they're needed most.
Power is down. Lights are out and water is cut off. Internet and phone access is blocked. Local governments struggle to provide humanitarian assistance relief without an established telecommunications infrastructure. Helping prepare for such a contingency, and promoting civil-military cooperation in meeting its challenges, is the goal of Strong Angel III, explained Navy Commander (Dr.) Eric Rasmussen, exercise director and chairman of the Department of Medicine at Naval Hospital Bremerton, Wash.
Rasmussen is no stranger to disasters. He's been involved in civil affairs and humanitarian and disaster response in Bosnia, Africa and Iraq, served as head of a civil-military coordination team after the 2005 tsunami in Indonesia and deployed to New Orleans with Joint Task Force Katrina. Throughout these experiences, Rasmussen said, he continually identified a nagging problem that he hopes efforts like Strong Angel III will help resolve: military and civil responders simply don't know how to communicate and work with each other.
"There's a misunderstanding about the level of professionalism on both sides," he said as he overlooked a flurry of activity on an open-air balcony at San Diego's Fire-Rescue Department Training Facility. Military people often think of non-governmental organization members as "do-gooders" who lack either experience or a long-term commitment. NGO staffers think of the military as too rigid or shortsighted to see the job through.
"Neither is true," Rasmussen said. "And if you have them come together to the same place to do something hard that requires them to work together toward a common purpose, that's how they come to recognize each others' professionalism." But the challenges go beyond mere perceptions, Strong Angel III participants acknowledged. In some cases, classified military networks don't interface with other first responders' open networks. As a result, the two entities can't talk to each other or coordinate their efforts.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Ed McLarney from U.S. Joint Forces Command's Joint Experimentation Directorate is here working to help break down those network boundaries. McLarney is part of a team testing a prototype that enables users to transfer information from a simulated classified network to a user on the open Internet.
"The idea is to selectively transfer specific information from a classified network, as needed, to networks where others can access it," he said. In a real disaster response, those involved could better share information, requirements and assistance. The concept follows what McLarney called the Army adage of "train as you fight." "And the way we fight today is as coalitions, so it is important that we be able to share information," he said.
Other DoD participants in Strong Angel III are exploring different ways to promote military-civil cooperation. Michael McGonagle, knowledge management chief for JFCOM's Standing Joint Force Headquarters, is here promoting HARMONIEweb.org, which the command recently developed as a clearinghouse for disaster assistance responders. The site, with the acronym for Humanitarian Assistance Response Monitoring and Operations Network Internet Enterprise, presents a single link where all responders can share information and coordinate their efforts, McGonagle explained.
"It's a link between those who have and need things," he said. "It's a way of pulling together existing sites so there's a single place for people to get information."
Feedback from Strong Angel III participants will help JFCOM further fine-tune the site and make it more useful, he said. Not far from McGonagle's work station, Lowell Pennington, an analyst from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, is part of a team exploring ways to help bring better situational awareness to first responders.
In one exercise scenario, an unknown white gas was pouring from a stopped vehicle. McGonagle and his fellow analysts charted the vehicle's location, calculated wind conditions to determine what areas might be affected by the smoke plume and worked to get that information to responders who needed it. "The bottom line is getting geospatial intelligence to the lowest tactical level," Pennington said. "We're trying to find out what we need to do to make the system better and more interactive for the future."
Across the balcony area, Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Michael Zwingle, Marine emergency preparedness liaison officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Region 9, was coordinating with other Strong Angel III players to determine what military resources were available to meet their needs.
"They tell me what capability they need, and I tell them what assets we have and what we can do," he said. "They are looking for assets. I look for resources and offer suggestions."
Meanwhile, Martin Hill, a research analyst for the Naval Health Research Center in nearby Point Loma, was here in the training facility courtyard sharing information about a software program the Marine Corps uses for medical planning before a deployment. The goal, he said, isn't to get civilian first responders to adopt the Marine Corps system. It's to identify what changes the system needs to better suit those responders' requirements.
"What we're looking at is developing it into a tool for civilian first responders," he said. "So we're here talking to people, collecting data, and we will take that back and figure out a course of action that will be mutually beneficial."
As participants in Strong Angel III learn from each other and field test ways of delivering life-saving humanitarian relief and rapidly deployable communication systems in response to major disasters, Rasmussen said he's overwhelmed by how quickly they are coming together as a team. "Stuff is happening all over this balcony," he said, looking out over a vast array of makeshift work stations at the Fire-Rescue Department Training Facility, "where people are coming together who would not otherwise have touched."
Strong Angel III is helping these responders smooth out their differences and form working relationships before an actual disaster occurs. "I can tell you from experience that it's deeply advantageous to know each other beforehand," Rasmussen said.
That way, they're better prepared to face crises and better able to help the people who need them. "Our major goal is to establish a model of community resilience in the face of adversity," Rasmussen said.