Off the coast of Oregon and Washington sits the Cascadia Subduction Zone that stretches 600 miles from northern California to British Columbia. Scientists have predicted that the CSZ could erupt at any moment and when it does, it will be the nation’s largest calamity ever.
“When the Cascadia Subduction Zone does rupture, it will result in a catastrophe like nothing we have ever seen,” said Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, commander, Washington National Guard. “It’s expected to be the worst natural disaster ever in the United States.”
To prepare for such an event, exercise Cascadia Rising simulated an earth-rattling 9.0 magnitude earthquake several miles off the coast, causing thousands of casualties; 30 minutes later a four-story tsunami wipes out entire communities along the northern Pacific coast. More than 8 million people live in the area likely to be affected, which contains the most highly populated areas of the Pacific Northwest, including Seattle and Portland. Aftershocks in the coming days cause bridges to collapse, extreme road damage and buildings leveled, as well as communications lost.
Several agencies over the past few years have developed an exercise called Cascadia Rising to test the response and readiness to a disaster of this magnitude.
The exercise that ran from June 7-10 involved more than 20,000 people from various federal agencies including the U.S. military, state and local emergency responders from the Pacific Northwest, as well as Native American tribes and emergency management officials from British Columbia.
One of the main goals of the exercise was to test how well the different agencies work together following a catastrophic event.
Officials tested the ability to communicate when all internet and phone services were blacked out due to the disaster.
Several National Guard units from across the country, along with the 134th Air Control Squadron from Wichita, Kansas, brought their Joint Incident Site Communications Capability equipment to Washington to participate in the exercise.
The primary function of the JISCC is to provide expeditionary communications capabilities to the entity it supports. Some of these capabilities include radio communications, phone service, internet service and video teleconferencing.
With any exercise there are always difficulties, and the 134th ACS encountered some during their time in Washington.
“The main difficulty we had here was that we arrived a lot sooner than we normally would,” said Chief Master Sgt. James Helms, cyber systems manager, 134th ACS. “We had to limit the services we provided in the beginning to HF [high frequency] radio and satellite phone capabilities.”
The 134th ACS was located at the Washington Department of Transportation Aviation Division in Olympia, Washington.
Throughout the exercise, the capabilities were increased from just radios and satellite phones, to computers, LAN line phones and VTC to enhance their infrastructure, as well as their communications with the outlying areas.
The primary role of the WSDOT Aviation division was to manage more than 100 airports they controlled, as well as the assets that were using them.
The communication that the JISCC provided helped them communicate with emergency operations centers placed throughout the state.
As the exercise continued the radio frequency, technicians had trouble with their HF and ultra-high frequency radio components. Members from the West Virginia Army National Guard lent their expertise with the JISCC system to troubleshoot the issues.
One of the biggest problems that the 134th ACS had with the JISCC was it is an Army system ran by Air Force personnel. With the 134th ACS being one of a few Air Force units to operate the JISCC, funding is a hindrance, making it difficult to complete equipment and software upgrades and training.
“It’s been great to work with the Army guys out of West Virginia to learn more about the radio system and how it operates,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Wolf, radio frequency transmission technician, 134th ACS.
Through a team effort, the bugs were worked out and the WSDOT Aviation division managed to successfully communicate with the other EOCs in the surrounding area.
“Having the JISCC in our building was great because if we needed anything, from a phone to a computer, we could just go in the next room and they would be there ready to help us,” said Lizz Slabaugh, tactical operations officer, Washington Department of Transportation, Aviation Division.
Whether it was running a phone line to their big conference room or putting up a tent for the pilots to have mission briefs in, the 134th accomplished everything asked of them.
“For this exercise, the JISCC achieved all of the objectives we set out for you guys [134th Air Control Squadron],” said Slabaugh. “We were really impressed.”