By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2007
BUTLERVILLE, Ind. -- "Okay, roll him over," a National Guard rescue worker tells his team, treating a bloodied, unconscious role-player pulled from the dust and rubble of a collapsed building in southern Indiana.
"One, two, three -- lift!" the guardsman says as the team carries the mock victim to a decontamination tent -- a little like a human carwash -- where the injured are rolled on stretchers through sprinklers that remove radioactive residue.
A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb has just detonated in greater Indianapolis, killing 14,000 people, injuring 21,000 and overwhelming local responders as part of the largest and most complex military and civilian training exercise of its kind. And so, thousands of local, state and national forces -- including more than 2,000 National Guard members and 1,200 active-duty troops from U.S. Northern Command -- are taking part in the 11-day exercise this week.
Other parts of the exercise include a simulated major hurricane in the Northeast and multiple terrorist attacks on military installations and infrastructure in Alaska.
"This may well be the most demanding scenario our nation faces," said Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., head of Northern Command, after surveying the emergency work on Saturday at a 1,000-acre training facility south of Indianapolis. "An event of this size would overwhelm any state."
Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina exposed gaps in the country's ability to respond to a large-scale domestic crisis, the exercise is showing important advances in the ability of responders to coordinate their efforts and put specialized lifesaving skills to work.
Yet the preplanned scenario, designed to push the U.S. response system to the breaking point, has also highlighted ongoing shortcomings in the government's ability to handle the aftermath of such a crisis.
Nationwide, for example, the Army National Guard has only half the equipment it needs to respond to crises at home -- from terrorist attacks to natural disasters. That includes 38 percent of trucks, 27 percent of helicopters and other aircraft, and 46 percent of communications gear, according to Guard data. Such gaps can delay critical help by days, leading to higher death tolls, said Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau.
"This is something that we've never seen -- a horrific attack," said Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard, which in the scenario mobilized its 13,500 available members. "We are all realizing that what we just went through is very probable for the nation."
At the sprawling Muscatatuck Urban Training Center outside Butlerville, some emergency responders ran mobile command centers and communications networks in trucks and tents. Others rescued victims from buildings.
In one tent, Capt. Kevin Jones of the Kentucky Guard manned a satellite communications network able to patch together radio systems used by local police, firefighters and the military -- a critical function absent during Katrina. Twenty-five such teams exist nationwide, with one planned for each of the states. "We can allow anyone to communicate with anyone," said Jones, whose team has had its equipment less than a year.
Nearby, other specialized Guard response teams performed difficult rescues, including rappelling off a building with a patient in a stretcher and removing the injured from a collapsed building. Since 2004, the Guard has established 17 response forces, with about 180 members each, to react within hours to chemical, biological or nuclear incidents.
"We want to see where this is going to break," said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Kim Sencindiver, who trains the 45-person medical teams that are part of each response force. "These guys have been out here three days -- they're tired."
The exercise showed new response capabilities, but it also revealed ongoing problems: radios and phones that malfunctioned, too few aircraft and slow reaction times.
"We have to get some of our federal partners plugged in earlier," said Earl Morgan, director of public safety for Indianapolis. "We need radiological experts in our back pocket."
Early decisions by the governor on whether to evacuate residents or shelter them in place had to be reversed hours later when expert advice became available, he said. "That harms the public confidence."
Many participants had days or weeks of notice for the exercise, which limited the ability to test response times required in a real attack. Many National Guard units arrived within four hours of the bombing and federal help arrived in seven or eight hours, Morgan said.
Indiana's Army National Guard, which has only 23 percent of its transportation equipment and 31 percent of its aviation gear on hand, had to call on the active-duty military for helicopters and transport planes. It also required help from units in Ohio, Illinois and other states. Such state-to-state borrowing helps fill gaps but also can delay by three or four days responses to unanticipated disasters and attacks, officials said.
"A slower reaction time equals lives saved or lost," Blum said. A nuclear incident would exacerbate shortages because gear and personnel would have to be frequently rotated and decontaminated, and would also require the labor-intensive removal of contaminated remains, he said.
The National Guard needs an additional $14 billion beyond what is now budgeted to replenish equipment, Blum said, adding that Congress and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have signaled they are considering new funding.
In terms of personnel, Indiana has most of its Guard members available now, but will deploy 4,000 troops to Iraq over the next seven months, Umbarger said. The National Guard, which today has nearly 55,000 troops deployed overseas and mobilized for fires, floods and other duty in 25 states, will increase its role in Iraq and Afghanistan in coming months to relieve active-duty troops.