Earlier this year, from May 29th through June 7th, FEMA conducted “Shaken Fury 2019” (SF19), an ambitious, large-scale training exercise involving dozens of multiple jurisdictions and organizations.
One of the many governmental branches that played a major role in the exercise was the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), which provided the unique opportunity for participants to deploy and test state-of-the art technology available to the emergency response community as part of the event.
The scenario simulated a 7.7 magnitude earthquake centered along the southwest segment of the New Madrid Seismic Zone near Memphis, Tennessee, incorporating a number of response and recovery missions. FEMA’s objectives were to establish information sharing practices and to demonstrate state, local and federal response efforts; real-time field reporting capabilities; aid resource planning and tracking capabilities, and other competences.
“The Science & Technology Directorate conducts in-house research on developing technology, but much of the time we’re doing it with private sector partners, academia or other government agencies, trying to find the technological solutions that will help in the organization’s mission,” said John S. Verrico, S&T’s chief of Media and Community Relations.
We like to get involved in these exercises because we can bring some of the new technologies out and let the participants try it out and see what works, what needs to be tweaked and how, and just to let them know that these tools are available.”
S&T Program Manager Ron Langhelm, along with Colin Murray, an exchange officer from Defence Research & Development Canada who is assigned to DHS S&T, led the group’s involvement with FEMA’s SF19.
“When we first thought about how we would integrate S&T into a national operational exercise, our thought was to come in and transition into the operational sphere the types of solutions and innovations that we work hard with the responders to develop,” Murray said.
For SF19, four areas categorized the main focus of where Murray and Langhelm put their efforts across the different exercise areas:
#1 Information Sharing
This was a significant resource that S&T brought to the event, aided by the relationship they have with the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC), a partnership of the federal government and the eight states most affected by earthquakes in the central United States (Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee).
“Shaken Fury 2019 was an opportunity for us in S&T to showcase the capabilities we have in this area,” Langhelm said.
The S&T team enabled information technology between the command post and emergency operation centers (EOCs) around the CUSEC region; that not only helped empower and enable decision-making at the EOC level but it also supported information transfer back and forth with FEMA headquarters, participating Dept. of Defense assets, as well as field operations.
In the years that I’ve been working within Homeland Security, this was one of the best times that I’ve seen actionable information being sought after from folks on the floor at the EOC level, looking to answer questions and going to the boards on the wall looking for the data-driven answers to help them make their next steps in all that decision-making,” noted Langhelm.
One of the primary technologies that S&T has been developing and customizing for CUSEC has been the Regional Information Sharing Platform (RISP), which was designed to provide situational awareness and decision support capabilities to ensure CUSEC members and partners have the information they need to be fully prepared for all hazards that threaten the vitality of the region and nation.
“RISP has been the enabler of information sharing across all of the work that we’re doing with CUSEC; it’s what’s empowering the information sharing with FEMA, as well as all of the other participants in the exercise,” Verrico noted.
#2 Communications Interoperability
The role of interoperability at the SF19 simulation was primarily in sharing data communications between the incident base and involved EOCs at the state and federal levels, allowing components such as video to be transferrable between disparate systems.
“We’ve been elaborating our capabilities towards an open forum,” Langhelm said.
The focus is in being agnostic to any specific platforms and creating the opportunity so that information sharing is not inhibited by the software at either end. Data availability is invited, and from the user perspective – the states, counties, all these jurisdictions – are empowered to utilize whatever tools that they choose, and we simply provide the opportunity to access the information that will enable them to make better decisions,” he continued.
#3 Urban Search & Rescue
The large scale of SF19 accommodated “Unified Response,” the largest-ever urban search and rescue exercise hosted in the U.S. It accommodated 13 US&R teams from the U.S., Canada and Australia, as well as six of FEMA’s task forces, the Department of Defense and National Guard.
S&T demonstrated and integrated newly developed technologies into the event, which the teams used to search for survivors in simulated collapsed structures. This event was held at the Muscatatuck Training Center (MUTC) in Indiana.
To benefit the participating responders, S&T set up a large tent in the middle of the exercise grounds and filled it with the latest US&R tools and tech, with vendor representatives on hand to provide a show-and-tell.
We had solicited 12 specific technologies relevant to US&R which were available for demonstration,” Murray reported. “We were also able to integrate them into the live play during the exercise, which really was an eye-opener not only for the responders but also for those who were developing the technologies, as they were able to get direct feedback on the effectiveness of their technology within an operational sphere.”
Murray and Langhelm estimated they had hundreds of responders come through the S&T tent over the two-day US&R exercise.
#4 Responder Capabilities
Through the evaluations of each exercise over SF19’s 10 days (one day for exercise start, seven days of response phase, and two final days for a long-term recovery phase), feedback was received and provided, and lessons learned were shared among the trainers, evaluators and participants.
It was apparent that the inclusion of existing and emerging technology enhanced responder capabilities throughout the varied elements of the event.
Among the new technologies used among SF19’s various venues were X3 FINDER, which “sees” through walls to locate trapped disaster survivors, TRX first responder sensors, and prototypes of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms designed to operate indoors.
One of the tools that we were nurturing through the planning process actually became operationalized when Missouri was hit with a tornado,” said Murray. “So they had to bail out of the exercise but at the same time they ended up using in an operational context the tools that we were helping develop during the build-up to this exercise.”
Birmingham Next Generation First Responder/Shaken Fury Operational Experimentation
One part of SF19 was held in August in Birmingham, Alabama, as the Next Generation First Responder – Birmingham Shaken Fury Operational Experimentation (OpEx). This activity was originally intended to be part of the main Shaken Fury event in June, but a scheduling complication led it to be rescheduled for August, when it proceeded with the same earthquake scenario and timeline.
By having that extra two-month lead-time, however, S&T was able to devote additional resources to provide both a tented technology demonstration as well as create additional scenarios used to test those technologies.
S&T Program Manager Cuong Luu led the affiliated Birmingham exercise.
The goal here,” Luu explained, “was to integrate first responder technology that had been developed by us as well as industry partners who brought in the latest technology to show how responders can enhance their mission capability in hazmat, and search and rescue incidents.”
Birmingham was selected for this phase of SF19 because they are hosting the World Games (a major international multi-sport competition) in 2021 and realized hosting this segment of Shaken Fury would be an ideal solution to augment their public safety capabilities.
In addition to federal participants including FEMA and the U.S. National Guard, a dozen state and local public safety agencies from the area, including University of Alabama resources, were involved.
Eighteen of S&T’s industry partners came on board to demonstrate new equipment which – along with five technology projects funded for S&T by DHS – was integrated into the exercise scenarios.
“We’ll be following up with local Birmingham public safety on two issues that came out of the exercise,” Luu said.
“We’re providing them with an in-town developed evacuation simulation tool, which they’re going to use so they can re-evaluate whether their current evacuation plan is ready or not. The second thing is that, during the exercise, the local agency realized their mobile command vehicle is outdated, so they reached back out to us to help them acquire a new one, and we are currently providing them with that support,” he said.
“One of the real benefits that comes out of this is that the vendors learn how these devices and technologies would really be used in the field, and the kinds of environments and rigors that they would be subject to, and what the expectation is,” Verrico concluded.
All of a sudden the vendor realizes, ‘Hey, we’ve been planning it this way all along, and maybe we need to tweak it a little bit more that way or this way.’ That leads to product improvement, so what ultimately gets developed and gets onto the street and commercialized is a tool that has been tried and tested and also meets the requirements as defined by a real operational approach. That just makes it all better for everybody,” he continued.
Murray also weighed in. “I would offer – and this is my opinion – that in hosting these exercises, if you only focus on validating your operational planning and not searching out avenues to bring in innovations, you’re missing the full opportunity of what the effort can provide,” he said.
“I think that this exercise validates that S&T has a legitimate role within the exercise framework to advance the capability and surpass it in the interest of the strategic objective, and is ultimately in the interests of the lives and livelihood of those who we ultimately serve.”
About the Author
Randall D. Larson is the founder and Plans section Chief for the California Mobile Command Center Expo and a retired dispatch supervisor, field communications leader, and dispatch/field comms instructor with the San Jose Fire Department.
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