You could not ask for a more beautiful spring day on the Chesapeake Bay. Gorgeous blue skies, no clouds, low humidity and a gentle enough breeze to cool you while you took in the pleasant scents from the bay. I’m in Perry Point, Md., a small piece of land that is literally a peninsula situated at one of the northernmost parts of the Chesapeake Bay. Standing on the grounds of the Perry Point VA Medical Center, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA Maryland Health Care System, it is at first glance a pristine view of what “Bay Life” is all about. But as beautiful as the weather and surrounding 400 acres are, there is a real-world exercise underway that is anything but attractive. It’s another day in NLE18 and the assembled players are playing out another tragic scenario that no one ever wants to see happen.
Still reeling from the after-effects of fictional Hurricane Cora that struck the greater Washington, D.C., area as a Category 4 hurricane (which is nearly 100 miles away), Cora hit Perry Point and the surrounding areas of Cecil County, Md., as a Category 2 storm. In its aftermath, this area of the Chesapeake found itself with lots of debris and power problems, but also more than its share of transportation challenges. Railroad lines that pass through the area are silent because portions of rail lines have been severed by Cora’s wrath. Even many of the surrounding roads, including Interstate 95, are clogged with debris and emergency vehicles doing whatever they can to get roads open so recovery operations and commerce can begin again. On top of that, the tunnels in and out of Baltimore that could bring any number of supplies and resources into the area remain closed as they are still flooded. And that’s just for starters.
Today’s exercise is “two days” after the Cora strike. A fictional severe thunderstorm fueled by the warm air and waters of the bay has spawned a tornado that has struck the Perry Point VA Medical Center campus. Patients and staff are trapped in several collapsed buildings and members of the Cecil County Fire Department, the Maryland National Guard and other regional first responders are assembling to execute their life-saving attack on the structures.
Lights are flashing from stationed fire trucks, radios are squawking updates and directions to deployed units are given. Joining me as fellow observers of what is happening are nearly two dozen fatigue-wearing military personnel from Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Taiwan. They are all part of a National Guard exchange program that shares emergency response practices with one another.
As a small group of National Guard officers explain what is happening around us, three first responders step out from the “collapsed” building, pulling a “victim” out on tarp litter. As they drag the weighted mannequin across the lawn to the medical triage tent for evaluation and treatment, the radio chatter announces that more victims have been found.
What follows are more units of first responders – all in different types of service uniforms, all working together, probably for the first time, to render aid however they can. Collectively they all work to familiarize themselves with the building structure and layout, while trying to ascertain where other victims might be found and what other resources they may need.
As this is happening, another group of responders are pulling another canvas litter out of the building – this time holding a real person, not a weighted mannequin. Trying to maintain her composure as four men carry her out (and not smile at the exercise-watchers as they look at her being dragged on the ground), she raises her head high enough so she doesn’t get her head banged on the ground.
Taking all of this in alongside the international observers is Brig. Gen. Sean Casey of the Maryland National Guard. In describing today’s exercise, on top of the events and aftermath that the fictional Cora strike has brought upon his home state, he says, “This is the absolute worst scenario for us. It’s bad enough what the storm [Cora] would do, but the storm surge that follows it would make what is a bad situation even worse.”
Adding another emergency like the fictional tornado strike, with supply lines already being stretched thin, limited highways in use, flooded tunnels preventing additional resources getting in, and battling physical exhaustion and fatigue of personnel who have been going nonstop for days, “this is what we have to be ready for.”
Pointing to response crews that are bringing more victims out of the building, Casey adds, “All of these people need to meet their counterparts and be ready to do their part.” He then described how just over 2,000 players – Maryland National Guard, civilians, public safety, emergency management, private sector and more – were playing in Maryland as part of the NLE18 exercise.
In speaking with him, Casey relayed a deep sense of pride at the efforts that were being showcased in the exercise. But coupled with that pride you also detect a sense of concern that any leader would have for the unknown time, event and location when they will be called upon and really tested.
That readiness aspect, along with meeting people in practice, rather than actual game time was echoed by Dawn Ivancik, the emergency manager for the VA Maryland Health Care System. Projecting readiness as well as resolve, she is the only emergency manager for what is a major regional healthcare facility in the state of Maryland (and mid-Atlantic). But at no time does she ever give a sense that she is alone in her job.
Like other emergency managers, she knows that lives are dependent upon her, her decisions as well as the resources and relationships she possesses. “You can’t do this job alone. I may be the only emergency manager for this facility, but I regularly train and exercise the staff here on what we need to do for any number of scenarios.”
She then described doing monthly tabletop exercises with Medical Center staff as well as regular engagements with her Veterans Administration counterparts, the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office, and Cecil County Fire, as well as other surrounding jurisdictions.
In identifying the tools at her disposal, she shared, “We have dual-use vehicles here that if we need to move people in a conventional way or in a hospital ambulatory fashion, we can do that, and the staff here know how to do those things. Evacuating them is the last resort and last thing we want to do, but we have to be ready to do it.”
As we discuss the exercise, Ivancik eludes to the fact that the facility she has emergency stewardship over is in fact a peninsula – a stretch of land that is almost entirely surrounded by water. In taking in that geographic condition, I remark to her that the Cora/NLE18 exercise has probably literally created a number of new remote islands in the surrounding area as the conventional supply lines and resources that have always been there are now cut off and inaccessible.
“Exactly!” she replied. “That’s why doing an exercise like this with search and rescue, the National Guard, Cecil County Fire, as well as the people here [Perry Point VA Medical Center] are essential for us.”
Motioning toward the window as National Guardsmen and local fire and rescue personnel continue to move equipment and people in the exercise, she noted that her job is “to help look after our veterans who have already given us so much.”
“I want to make sure we are ready to give them even more when we are called upon to do so. That’s why I have to make sure we’re ready because none of us can afford to be alone on any island. We need to have practice and relationships.”
As she relays her response, two of her VA colleagues chime in from the side of the room and share that the Perry Point VA Medical Center team is indeed ready for whatever may come their way. And they credit Dawn for what she’s done to make sure they all know what to do when they are called upon to do “more.”
That ability to know what to do and be ready to take on “more” at a moment’s notice is something Brig. Gen. Casey also relayed during the exercise. As we watched the Guardsmen work with the other exercise participants, he shared that his retirement from the National Guard was on the horizon in a year or so.
“He doesn’t know it yet, but tomorrow my second-in-command is going to take over for the rest of the exercise as I’m going to be ‘hit by a bus,’ which then puts him in charge,” Casey said.
He smiled as he said this, knowing it would be a helluva curve ball tossed at his team. But in sharing that detail with me, Casey relayed confidence as to how his team would react to the sudden (and fictionally dramatic) change in his exercise “status.” (And this is a fictional “hit by a bus” scenario. No one is going to put the brigadier general in front of a bus to be struck; at least I hope not. It’s just his intent to switch from being a “player” to an “observer” for the remainder of the NLE18 exercise.)
In hearing him describe the exercise surprise that was yet to be sprung, I asked if he thinks his second in command knows what might be coming.
Replying with a smile, Casey said, “I think he knows something’s coming but he doesn’t know what it is yet.”
“But that’s the point of exercises like this. Everyone must be ready to step up and do the next job. That’s how you succeed in tough conditions.”
Which explains why practice and relationships make all the difference in the world and how you can survive on unexpected islands or when leadership and conditions unexpectedly change.
It’s about possessing confidence, skill and collaboration, and when those three ingredients are added to any mix things always get better. And Maryland has a lot already in its mix, and showed today that they’re ready to go.