(June 28, 2017) – The district’s emergency response skills were put to the test recently during a two-day Illinois statewide exercise that included over 50 agencies from the county, local, state, federal, and private sector. Operation Power Play, held May 18 – 19, was set up to prepare the state for catastrophic events that would severely impact water, energy (electricity and gas), transportation, and communications. Simulated disasters were held throughout Illinois. The Corps’ Chicago District practiced flooding scenarios and what to do if there was a spill or contamination in the water.
Army Corps of Engineers activities included monitoring river forecasts, testing emergency response notification systems, and activating specific Crisis Action Teams (CAT).
Bill Rochford, operations officer and Geotechnical & Survey Section chief, oversees the CAT and flood teams. His role is to coordinate the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) staff and assess the developing situation, evaluate conditions at Corps facilities, respond to requests for Corps assistance, brief district senior leaders, and report to higher headquarters.
“The exercise gave us a chance to consolidate on the lessons learned from the last time the EOC fully activated during the 2013 flood,” Rochford said. “The biggest challenge was our ability to access the district network at the mobile command center. We did learn a lot and implemented some new procedures that will assist in coordination between the EOC and the field teams.”
Flood teams deploy to field locations to provide technical assistance to state, county, and local partners in flooded areas. These teams also gather information and report back to the CAT.
Engineer Andrew Farver’s role as project engineer in the CAT is to help bridge any communication gaps between the CAT and various flood teams once they get out in the field. Since this was an exercise, he said the teams didn't actually need to move around much.
“In a real situation, the project engineer would be directing those teams to multiple locations throughout the duration of the emergency based on constantly updated information gathered by the CAT,” he said. “I mostly helped support the other CAT members on day one, and practiced contacting flood teams and compiling pictures and field data into a briefing report on day two.”
Farver has real-world emergency response deployment experience under his belt. He served as a project engineer in Baton Rouge in November 2016 and said that job was similar to the project engineer role he has within the CAT here in Chicago, “but just expanded.” So he said that, while not exactly the same, he was familiar with working under uncertain and constantly changing conditions.
“I thought Operation Power Play was very successful in refreshing all the returning members as well as introducing myself to the protocol in an emergency situation,” Farver said. “Of course we ran into small issues here and there like slow internet or buggy GIS data, but overall we were very well guided and prepared to successfully handle the situation.”
One of the unique aspects of the exercise was the addition of the Corps emergency command and control vehicle (ECCV) aka deployable tactical operations system (DTOS), a 47-foot box truck that deploys to provide communications and workspace for 11 personnel in planning and response teams.
James Sowell, ECCV team leader from Nashville District’s Operations Division, drove the vehicle for 11 hours from Old Hickory, Tenn., where it’s housed, for day two of Operation Power Play that took place at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion. Also joining him from the Nashville District was Tim Rochelle, team leader, and Kevin Gatlin, emergency manager.
The ECCV has a radio, interagency voice interoperability which means that its phone system is connected with the Corps-wide phone system, and satellite and cellular capabilities that can deliver both voice and data communications to the Corps network and beyond. This vehicle is totally self-contained and can be operated for up to 72 continuous hours with onboard fuel before additional fuel or alternative shore power is required.
“The exercise went very well,” Sowell said. “Contacts with other operations was beneficial, learning what they offer during emergency situations. I have worked with DTOS for 18 years and I very much enjoy helping people.”
JD Ennis, geospatial coordinator, also worked in the vehicle during the exercise.
“GIS is an important part because it provides necessary information about an emergency event to help in the decision making process,” he said. “Also, the truck provided a nice work space and is convenient for being in the field. It was an operation that was beneficial because we had a chance to work out the bugs before a real emergency.”
Bob Paluch, emergency manager and Readiness Section chief, said that many months were spent planning with federal, state, county, local, and private partners. And the planning effort enabled the Chicago District to form many new relationships, strengthen many of our existing relationships, and lay the groundwork for expanding coordination efforts with our partners.
“The Chicago District exercised our emergency response capabilities to a great extent during this exercise,” he said. “We activated our crisis management team, crisis action team, and flood teams. Through coordination with our headquarters, division office, and the Nashville District, we were able to include one of our ECCVs in the exercise. This allowed our CAT the ability to practice operating from a remote location in the event our EOC was not available.
“Overall, the exercise was a great success. We tested many capabilities and identified multiple areas where we can improve and streamline our processes. We look forward to working with and conducting more exercises with our partners into the future.”