FEMA mission assignment calls for a crisis response

Monday, October 01, 2012

The unthinkable happened: A (simulated) 3,000 lb. radiological dispersal devise exploded at a train station in a major Midwestern city.

Within hours, reports indicated two additional radiological devises, as well as a possible nuclear device, also detonated within the city.

Within minutes of the incident, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began the process of responding to the crisis; and soon after, an Army North defense coordinating element, or DCE, kicked into high gear as it prepared to help coordinate for Department of Defense assistance.

"Once an incident has happened, FEMA writes a mission assignment and sends it to the defense coordinating officer," Lt. Col. Charles Jackson, deputy defense coordinating officer (DCO) for U.S. Army North’s Defense Coordinating Element Region VII, Kansas City, Mo., said.

Adding, "The DCO will alert Army North of the help request, and then the defense coordinating element will be activated."

Jackson also noted, "Once they have arrived on the scene, they will monitor situational awareness and determine if there are any military immediate responders on the scene. We are always the support element when we respond to situations in the United States."

Defense coordinating elements serve as the Department of Defense’s first responders to a natural or man-made disaster. The DCEs are permanently assigned to all ten FEMA regions and serve as the DoD’s point of contact to the primary federal agencies responding to an event.

"We are the bridge between the state and federal government in coordinating resources to provide assistance to the American public," Sgt. 1st Class James Venable, emergency preparedness liaison officer, Defense Coordinating Element VII, said.

After a disaster, the state government(s) turns to FEMA to request help in providing resources to those affected. If FEMA cannot provide the needed resources directly, it sends a mission assignment to the assigned DCE requesting help.

Timeliness is paramount once called upon.

The process is a quick one and the mission is vital – to aid their fellow Americans when called upon.

"When we get a mission assignment from FEMA, the first thing we do is determine if it meets regulatory criteria," Jackson said. If it does, the DCE works to get the mission assigned.

Mission assignments fall under three categories: lifesaving, life-sustaining and all others. Once the mission assignment is approved, it is sent to a joint task force to be carried out.

To ensure the DCE is effective in times of national emergency, it is certified annually.

DCE VII is currently at Camp Atterbury, Ind., and is undergoing certification as part of Vibrant Response 13.

As part of the exercise, as soon as the members of DCE VII arrived on the scene, they quickly worked on gaining situational awareness and to kick off the process of approving mission assignments that would ultimately go to Joint Task Force – Guardian, a command and control response element composed of National Guard members.

"One of the most difficult things in the initial hours after an incident is determining real information and separating it from inaccurate information," Jackson said.

He added, "That is why it is important that we remain in contact with the responders on the ground."

The training done at Army North’s Vibrant Response is realistic and beneficial to his team, said Col. Edward Manning, defense coordinating officer, DCE Region VII.

"This training is important because it prepares us to understand what is required in a real-world incident," Manning explained.