FORT POLK, La. — December 3 began like most late fall days at Fort Polk: Gray skies with the threat of rain, temperatures in the upper 60s and 20,000 Soldiers and civilians headed to work.
But there was one exception: A training exercise was about to begin for the more than 9,000-member Joint Task Force-Civil Support and the Defense Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Response Force that would disrupt normal activities and test the JTF-CS and DCRF ability to respond to a catastrophic event requiring local, state, federal and military authorities to work hand-in-hand to protect the public.
The scenario for the exercise was ambitious: A category 4 hurricane was bearing down on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, requiring evacuation of everyone south of Baton Rouge. U.S. Hwy 171, the main north-south escape route on the western side of the state, passes just to the west of Fort Polk’s main access control point. During the evacuation, a terrorist carrying a nuclear device is involved in a traffic accident near Fort Polk and detonates the bomb, resulting in members of the local population being contaminated with radiation and requiring traffic to be rerouted through Fort Polk.
During the reroute, a truck carrying hazardous flammable material developed a leak and exploded, causing the Fort Polk movie theater to collapse and resulting in more than 300 casualties.
The injured were too many for Fort Polk’s Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital to handle so local civilian hospitals were pressed into service. Also, local emergency services personnel were required, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Louisiana State Police Hazardous Materials Team.
Playing a major role in the exercise, dubbed “Urgent Response,” was Fort Polk’s 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, the lead element among the more than 9,000 Soldiers and civilians that make up JTF-CS and DCRF. The force is made up of deployable packages spread across the U.S. that can respond to catastrophic CBRN incidents within a set time period.
The first package is equipped with various life-saving military assets, such as search and rescue and emergency medical treatment personnel and equipment. It is tasked to respond to incidents within 24 hours of activation. Follow on forces provide more long-term logistical, engineering and medical support.
JTF-CS and the DCRF respond only at the request of a state governor, on approval of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. president, and in support of a lead federal agency, such as FEMA.
Maj. Gen. Jeff Mathis III, commander, JTF-CS, said it is important for the U.S. to be well prepared and equipped to save the lives of its citizens.
“The only way to do that is to train with our civilian first responders,” Mathis said. “That’s what is unique about this training exercise.”
Mathis said he is confident the JTF-CS and DCRF can handle whatever mission it is assigned.
"The DCRF is very focused on its mission: Search and rescue, mass casualty decontamination, medical triage and medical evacuation," Mathis said. "I am confident that if we are called for duty, our personnel will be able to meet the point of impact and do those kinds of things."
Those personnel include members of local civilian emergency services agencies and hospitals who play a vital role in the DCRF’s success.
"We've made huge strides in coordinating with our community of partners and synchronizing together," Mathis said. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be very effective. I've talked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about exercise operations and our coordination will just continue to get better."
Ashleigh White, a nursing student at Lamar-Salter Technical Community College, participated in the exercise along with 11 classmates. She said she enjoyed the challenge of working with casualties in a field environment where there were hundreds of victims.
“It’s fun to break away from the everyday drudge of a hospital or nursing home,” White said. “We’re trained to do our jobs under stress: If you can’t handle blood, guts or gore, you shouldn’t be a nurse.”
Rey Roberts, a paramedic with Acadian Ambulance, also enjoyed the experience of a mass casualty exercise.
“It’s different, very exciting,” Roberts said. “It’s great to see all of the local organizations working together. We should do this on a regular basis.”
In addition to FEMA, Louisiana State Police HAZMAT and Fort Polk Directorate of Emergency Services, the following local agencies participated in the exercise: Vernon, Beauregard and Calcasieu parish sheriff offices, Leesville Police, DeRidder Police, Byrd and Beauregard Memorial hospitals, and various parish and volunteer fire departments. Fort Polk Fire Chief Michael Kuk said having so many different agencies could present problems.
“We’re finding out things we have to overcome, such as shared terminology and different radio frequencies,” Kuk said. “You would think that with the technology we have today that wouldn’t be a problem, but we still can’t talk between agencies except for face to face.”
Kuk said those types of problems are the reason it is important to conduct large-scale training exercises that involve all parties.
“It (training exercises) helps us to identify things we need to improve on,” he said.
And Mathis said it is important to thank those civilian agencies that participated in the exercise, which spanned five days.
“They pull resources away from their normal activities to take part in these exercises,” Mathis said. “It impacts their manpower and resources and we appreciate their willingness to be part of this team.”