NEWS | Aug. 6, 2021

Nearly 20 Years After 9/11, DoD Emergency Responders Build from Experience and Share Best Practices

By Capt. Joe Legros 46th Military Police Command

“You won’t find a better venue for the military to train on multi-domain operations, particularly when we’re simultaneously learning from our civilian partners in the dense urban terrain of New York City,” said Col. Chris McKinney, chief of staff for Task Force 46, Michigan Army National Guard.

“The city is really a combination of systems and platforms,” continued McKinney. “From underground subway systems, numerous bridges, roads and waterways to some of the tallest high-rise buildings in the world. The city has it all. This environment also presents quite a challenge when responding to a catastrophic event.”

Task Force 46 provides command and control for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear response elements (C2CRE-B) converging on New York City for annual dense urban terrain (DUT) training, with this year’s iteration occurring from August 3-5. The FDNY hosted the event at their Fire Academy Training Center on Randalls Island.

The exercise includes over 170 Soldiers from 12 Army National Guard units, two Army Reserve units and Canadian Armed Forces with military police, engineering, medical, logistics and HAZMAT response capabilities. However, this is more than just a military exercise.

In fact, military personnel train in a subordinate role, always supporting local, state and federal civilian authorities throughout the exercise. DoD would do the same during an actual national response incident.

“We couldn’t conduct this training without the unique partnerships with our civilian counterparts,” shared Commanding General of Task Force 46 Maj. Gen. Pablo Estrada. “FDNY and NYPD, along with the NY/NJ Port Authority, Office of Emergency Management and FEMA, they are all critical to our overall success.”

This type of DoD coordination with civilian partners is part of a federally recognized relationship known as defense support of civil authorities (DSCA). Whenever there is a significant natural disaster or all-hazards event requiring a national response, DSCA operations usually commence.

While the relationship between military and civil authorities predates the tragic events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks, natural disasters and a global pandemic continually reveal the need for further, more in-depth coordination of effort.

This year’s DUT training features the expertise of local responders who intimately know the terrain, such as the NYPD, FDNY, the NY/NJ Port Authority and the city and state’s Office of Emergency Management. Some participants were first responders who converged on the Pentagon and the twin towers within hours of the towers collapsing 20 years ago.

Others were among the survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center.

DUT exercises help both military and civilian responders learn from the past and respond more effectively in the future by sharing best practices at a strategic and tactical level.

While preparing for America’s worst day may seem daunting, the planners of DUT events, which have been held in Detroit and scheduled in Los Angeles, conduct demanding exercises in some of the most difficult circumstances, including simulated subway rescue scenarios and hypothetical nuclear blasts impacting multiple buildings and neighborhoods.

The New York City DUT iteration provides responders the opportunity to react to two separate hypothetical missile strikes, one at Yankee Stadium and the other at a reservoir impacting water supplies.

The exercise also introduces degraded communication systems and nearly impossible logistical issues further complicated by the nature of densely populated areas such as New York City. Information and resources come to a standstill.

Think rush-hour gridlock, then multiply that by a thousand.

“Degradation of communication lines should not be underestimated,” said Lt. Col. Brian Langlois, Task Force 46 deputy G6, the unit’s communications section. “If we can’t talk to one another, we won’t be able to share critical information.”

DUT training includes a communications exercise between senior leaders and all subordinate units from ten different states, the Ontario Province of Canada, as well as the FDNY, NYPD the NY/NJ Port Authority and the United States Coast Guard among others. The G6 communications section establishes radio and phone systems, as well as internet networks to ensure rapid sharing of information.

“We know there will be complications, but it’s our job to resolve communication issues as quickly as possible,” Langlois added.

DUT training also consists of an academic seminar where subject matter experts share techniques varying from the proper way to enter a burning building to best practices when wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus. However, the training is not limited to those on the front lines of hazard response.

“The command teams, both military and civilian, get a wake-up call as well,” shared Col. McKinney, whose civilian background includes service as a former FBI special agent. “The exercise planners test our ability as leaders to respond to stressors.”

“Just when we think we have it all figured out, they’ll inject another seemingly impossible element for us to tackle,” added McKinney.

“I like to call it ‘frame’ and ‘reframe,” said Col. Sean Flynn, commander of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, headquartered in Syracuse, NY. “We think we know the proper way to respond, but then the scenario changes.”

Flynn spoke of the importance of leadership communicating their intent to those working out in the field. Often leaders will know of political or social issues which may have an impact on their areas of operation, as well as the communities where responders are working. This critical information should be communicated down the line.

“However, it’s just as important for our front-line people to let leadership know when the situation changes on the ground,” added Flynn. “If another building collapses, or a fire spreads, leadership may need to reframe our original intent. We need to stay flexible and keep people safe.”

Day two of the exercise featured Soldiers and FDNY responding to the simulated missile strikes. Flexibility and communication were on full display.

Search and rescue teams work their way through a subway simulator, a partially collapsed building and rubble pile, searching for mannequins serving as notional victims. Responders locate survivors by utilizing seismic and acoustic listening devices. In some cases, technicians need to lift heavy concrete sections with hydraulics or forge through walls with torches and concrete-cutting chainsaws to extract victims from the wreckage.

Once victims are located, responders identify and apply initial first aid to wounds, then stabilize them for transport through a decontamination area and medical triage where more detailed clinical treatment can be performed.

Every step of the way, responders communicate with first line leaders and command teams to keep everyone informed of the changing situation. For instance, when search and rescue teams locate another victim, they radio ahead so decontamination and medical teams can prepare.

“One of the most overlooked aspects of DUT training is the opportunity to connect ahead of a serious event,” shared Deputy Chief Scott Shanley, commanding officer of the NYPD’s counterterrorism bureau. “The time to get someone’s phone number or email is not on America’s worst day. It should be done ahead of time, while training together and learning from one another.”

Military and civilian counterparts receive exactly this opportunity during DUT events such as logistics walks, terrain orientation and after-action reviews, which occur on day three once training concludes.

As was the case on 9/11, multiple organizations converged on New York City from other areas of the country. However, the responders with the most expertise regarding the area’s unique terrain are those who reside within the city.

“The NYPD and FDNY, as well as other local organizations, know the city best,” added Shanley. “They’re the ones who provide the best site picture and emergency scene management to those arriving to help.”

DUT training is no different. While the military arrives in New York City with years of training under its belt in the areas of complex hazard response, medical and logistical capabilities, as well as policing and engineering expertise, they defer to their New York counterparts on terrain and daily experience.

Local responders are often the best source of information regarding social, economic and political issues as well. Prior knowledge of these factors could help prevent certain secondary effects of a catastrophic event.

“Civil unrest after a hazardous incident is very real; understanding the complexity of the human terrain in this environment is critical to mission success,” shared Lt. Col. Brian Higgins with the New York Army National Guard. “Working together with organizations like the NY/NJ Port Authority, the NYPD, FDNY and the National Guard is essential to ensuring the safe transit of people and resources into and out of a hazardous situation.”

Higgins was previously assigned to the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) serving as the Officer in Charge of its Dense Urban Terrain Detachment in New York City. His experience as an NYPD Detective assigned to the Emergency Service Unit was a natural fit to support the Army’s DUT effort.

AWG understood that as the world was becoming more urbanized, the Army needed to reassess dense urban and subterranean operations.

Higgins adds, “Cities are systems. These incidents disrupt the system’s ‘flow’ and the ultimate goal is to return the area back to pre-incident conditions as safely and quickly as possible. Working with interagency partners in a joint and unified manner is the most effective way to be successful.”

Collaboration is critical and the relationships forged during training events are invaluable.

Task Force 46 spent the past four years building relationships with multiple organizations, both in New York City and other areas such as Detroit and Los Angeles, all densely populated areas. Each has its own set of complications when it comes to hazard response, making local partnership even more important.

“This exercise offers the military an opportunity to work side-by-side with some of the most experienced first response operators in the US,” said FDNY Battalion Chief Thor Johannessen. “It provides exposure to our most recent initiatives and even some lessons learned very recently from the tragic Champlain Towers building collapse in Florida.”

Johannessen also serves as a Major in the New York Army National Guard. He added, “At the same time, DUT exercises provide insight to local authorities regarding capabilities brought by the military and how to employ those capabilities most effectively.”

These partnerships are leveraged to enhance effectiveness, enabling responders to speak the same terminology, helping to bridge communication gaps that could otherwise increase response time.

“While we cannot anticipate every disaster, nor the ever-changing situations on the ground, we can focus this training on our unity of effort,” said Lt. Gen. (retired) Jeffrey Buchanan, former commanding general of Army North and civilian participant in the DUT’s senior leader forum.

As New York City and the rest of the world remembers the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, it is important to consider why this type of training is necessary.

“Forging interoperability among military and civilian partners helps ensure our efforts will save lives and mitigate suffering. That is our ultimate goal,” Maj. Gen. Estrada concluded.