MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Tuesday at 7:01 a.m., the San Andreas Fault suddenly awakened sending seismic energy waves out in all directions. Strong shaking, lasting 20-45 seconds, reached the San Bernardino Valley causing death destruction and mayhem. California was finally experiencing “The Big One.”
Notionally, of course.
This was only the beginning of Golden Guardian, an elaborate annual exercise taking part at the Combat Center May 18-20.
Golden Guardian is a California-wide emergency response exercise designed to test the response capabilities of installation personnel during a catastrophic event.
While other organizations in California used Golden Guardian to test their abilities to react to a terrorist attack, the Combat Center chose to go in a different direction.
“Chances of an earthquake hitting Twentynine Palms are a lot greater than a terrorist incident at a port like the rest of California is training for, so we need to know how to do this properly,” said Col. Tim Green, the assistant chief of staff for the Mission Assurance Directorate.
Although installation personnel knew the earthquake would hit Tuesday morning, most of the chaotic details were withheld until reports of damaged buildings or casualties were called in.
After the earthquake, the Provost Marshal’s Office and Combat Center Fire Department rushed into action. Both organizations are part of the operations section working out of the emergency operations center, which was set up at 4th Tank Battalion’s headquarters building to help control the situation.
The first responders quickly assessed the situation aboard the installation, aided injured people and extinguished fires. As reports came in, the situation worsened. Building damage, fire and transportation system accidents caused 282 deaths and 103 serious injuries within the county. Thousands of people were without homes and all electric power throughout the county was knocked out. While the two sections raced to the mock scenarios.
To ensure the Combat Center responds effectively to a disaster, the EOC must run smoothly with little or no hitches, said Green, a native of Phoenix.
“We want information redundancy throughout the entire EOC,” added Staff Sgt. Joe Evans, an emergency management specialist for PMO, while he marked incidents such as destroyed buildings and personnel movement on a map. “That way, you see the most current information everywhere you look.”
The EOC is made up of five main sections – the incident management team, operations center, planning and intelligence, logistics and finances. Each section is in charge of different aspects of containing the disaster.
Green said it was a struggle in the beginning of the exercise to juggle real-world work while working in the EOC, but he said the personnel were making things work because it is important for the installation to be prepared in the midst of a disaster.
As the exercise progressed, more emergencies were inserted into the scenario to see how well the personnel responded to new threats. Participating families were evacuated from their homes to a shelter. Search and rescue missions were deployed to find people buried in destroyed buildings. Wednesday morning, military police were informed two people with malicious intent stole weapons from an armory. This caused the force protection condition to rise to delta, which is achieved when intelligence reports indicate an attack is likely. This made it more difficult for people driving on and off the Combat Center while PMO’s special reaction team searched for the role players.
Sgt. Patricia Newby, who provided security during the exercise, said she was surprised at how in-depth the exercise went, but was glad the plans included every aspect to ensure everybody’s safety.
Thursday morning, mass casualties, fatalities and a hazardous material spill were reported causing a flurry of movement from Center Fire, and PMO’s Special Reaction Team responded to rioting, hungry role players at the front gate.
At the end of the exercise, feedback was provided from evaluators, and suggestions were given to ensure Combat Center personnel knew how to respond in case a disaster hit.
“We need an efficient flow of information between the sections or else everything falls apart,” Green said. “This is the first time we exercised a full stand up of the emergency operations center, and so far we are working well together.”