By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Bodies were strewn about the lawn in front of Abrams Physical Fitness Center on June 20. Men and women with gaping head, neck, chest, arm and leg wounds lay moaning on the ground. Minutes before, a car explosion sent an unknown gas into the air.
As workers in protective suits evacuated people from inside Abrams, a woman's voice rang out over a loudspeaker: "Attention: Seek shelter immediately. Close doors and windows. Shut off ventilation, heating and air conditioning."
Fort Hood officials led an exercise Friday designed to test the post's response to a terrorist attack. It started with a simulated explosion at Abrams that resulted in mass casualties and emergency crews from Fort Hood, Killeen, Copperas Cove, Harker Heights and Lampasas responded, treating the "injured" at triage and decontamination sites.
The "victims" were soldiers wearing body makeup and prosthetic wounds, and the "unknown gas" was the nerve agent, Sarin.
Pfc. John Gifford, of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, stood outside of a decontamination tent that day holding his head wound in his hand. He was sweating and the prosthetic had fallen off. The card around his neck said he fell and had sustained a large, bleeding head wound. He was one of 22 "injured" soldiers who was hit by the car bomb outside Abrams.
The exercise, the first full-blown, terrorist-attack simulation at Fort Hood, was run from an Emergency Operations Center located at III Corps Headquarters. Post leaders, including Col. Tori Bruzese, garrison commander, and officials from the Directorates of Emergency Services and Plans, Training and Mobilization, and Force Protection led the exercise. It also included representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and FBI.
After Sept. 11, 2001, officials saw the need for such exercises.
"We will never, ever let our guard down again," Bruzese said Friday.
This is one step that has been taken since the terrorist attacks to step up and test the level of preparedness and security on military installations. Before Sept. 11, there were already plans to increase security by making Army posts closed to the general public, Bruzese said. That was spurred by the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October of 2000, and was to go in effect by 2007. The exercise was funded by the Defense Department.
The post has gotten to exercise its contingency plans for natural disasters like floods, fires and tornadoes in recent months, but Friday was the first time for a simulated terrorist attack.
"We're exercising a muscle we don't get to exercise very often," Bruzese said.
It is important because, just like a muscle, those procedures will atrophy if they're not used, she said.
These types of scenarios are regularly examined on smaller scales in conference rooms and during tabletop exercises, Bruzese said. Fort Hood also relies on mutual aid agreements with surrounding communities to assist in these kinds of exercises and has worked in conjunction with them during events like the recent flooding and when a soldier was missing at Fort Hood earlier this month.
During an exercise such as this, local and on-post agencies work together using the National Incident Management System. The system unifies different agencies by providing a common language or way of dealing to an incident so all first responders are on the same sheet of music, said Eddy Howton, director of the post's Emergency Services. This is a system used by all local, state and federal agencies.
Exercises like this help officials identify gaps in procedure so they can be corrected or improved upon for future training, Bruzese said. Officials are looking for precision rather than perfection, she said, because perfection is just not a reality.
Subject-matter experts from across the United States observed the June 20 exercise and will provide Fort Hood officials with a formal after-action review so they can see their strengths and weaknesses, said Mark Peterson, a Force Protection Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive Operations Specialist at Fort Hood.
They are already learned lessons from previous events like tornado warnings, Bruzese said. The newly installed mass-notification warning system was first used recently to alert Fort Hood residents to possible tornadoes. Officials learned that the warning should be repeated because it took residents several rounds to identify and understand the message. The first time it was administered, the Directorate of Emergency Services was flooded with 911 calls, Bruzese said.
Officials haven't received the formal after-action review yet, but they have already identified some things to work on, Howton said. That includes re-evaluating where triage and decontamination sites will be set up in relation to the incident – or the car blast in last week's exercise. Howton also said that so much information was coming into the Emergency Operations Center from people on the scene, that decision-makers need a better way to segregate information and make sure it gets to the right officials.
They are also examining ways to get more visual information to the center – videos, photos and diagrams – so logistics personnel can better plan ways to supply workers on the ground.
At the Emergency Operations Center, officials used the latest technology to gather information from the scene and track wind speed and weather conditions to determine where the sarin gas was traveling. There is a 90 percent change of feeling effects of the chemical, Bruzese said, as she stood in the parking lot in front of Abrams.
The exercise also allowed for the testing of new first-responder equipment, such as Level A suits, used to protect first responders from contamination, and chemical and radiological detection equipment.
Workers at Darnall Army Medical Center also participated in the exercise by providing a triage site for the "injured." About 100 soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, also participated in the exercise, serving as the Quick Reaction Force, said Maj. Dave Olson, a brigade spokesman. These soldiers "guarded" key points across post during the event, something that Fort Hood soldiers would step in to do in the event of a real attack.
Bruzese pointed to the case in May in which six men were arrested for plotting to attack Fort Dix, N.J., saying that not only post preparedness, but public vigilance was important in thwarting such incidents. The men were turned in by a citizen who happened to see a video of the men firing weapons. An investigation followed after the citizen tipped off police. It is so important for people to report anything they may think is suspicious, Bruzese said. Fort Hood has a hotline, (254) 288-COPS, where anyone can report suspicious activity.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7547