Utah Guard Plays Key Role in

September State Pandemic Exercise

 

By Shad West

Published October 15, 2007

 

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A Utah Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter lands on a side street in Montezuma Creek to deliver medical supplies.

Photo by Shad West

A Utah Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter lands

on a side street in Montezuma Creek to deliver medical supplies.

MONTEZUMA CREEK, Utah — Less than 24 hours after the Utah National Guard’s Joint Operation Center stood up Sept. 18 to support the State Health Department’s large-scale flu pandemic exercise, a single UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter circled this dusty desert town looking for the makeshift landing zone.

With a pass over the San Juan County hamlet that sits on the edge of the Navajo Nation Reservation in Southeastern Utah, the pilots spotted the wooden stakes with plastic streamers and a fire engine blocking traffic from single-lane street just off of Trading Post Road. A surge of the helicopter’s engines brought the aircraft in at a sharper-than-anticipated angle to avoid hanging power lines, setting the helicopter down onto the blacktop. 

On board the Blackhawk was a simulated batch of Tamiflu, part of the 200,000 courses of the antiviral the State had received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be distributed statewide.  The helicopter was also stocked with supplies for the Utah Navajo Health System—the community’s health center.

Sgt. Camron Haag, foreground, and Lt. Col. Lamar Blair prepare to transport supplies to Montezuma Creek for the Pandemic exercise.

Photo by Shad West

Sgt. Camron Haag, foreground, and Lt. Col. Lamar Blair prepare

to transport supplies to Montezuma Creek for the Pandemic exercise.

“The supplies were for our emergency response trailer,” said Dennis Hammond, a UNHS spokesman. “Our clinic is very central for the local community. We work with communities both on and off of the Navajo Reservation.”

Hammond said the clinic is the central point for emergency distribution in the area and the exercise allowed many of the clinic’s employees to experience vital hands-on training.

“This was a very good experience for us,” Hammond said. “The exercise was very enlightening for us.”

This was the second stop for the three-person helicopter crew. They had delivered a batch of the simulated vaccine to health officials in St. George two hours before.

These were just two of the key distribution locations across the state where health officials would dispense medicine to the most critically ill patients through medical providers. Health officials from 10 other health districts throughout the State were involved in the exercise in their own jurisdictions, and in an actual emergency the Utah National Guard would have worked hand in hand with officials to distribute supplies throughout all the districts.

State of Utah officials activate the Emergency Operations Center at the State Capitol to monitor the situation as it unfolds.

Photo by Shad West

State of Utah officials activate the Emergency Operations

Center at the State Capitol to monitor the situation as it unfolds.

While this (Wednesday, Sept. 19) was only the second “physical” day of the exercise for Guard participants, in the scenario it was actually Tuesday morning, when public health officials received word of the first "confirmed" H5N1 influenza case and activated their emergency operations center. That action was quickly followed by the standing up of the State’s Department of Homeland Security EOC below the Capitol complex in downtown Salt Lake City. 

Within minutes of Guard representatives’ reporting to the EOC at the Capitol, officials in Draper activated the Guard’s Joint Operation Center.

In actuality, Wednesday represented the second week of the emergency exercise. 

Besides health officials, representatives from the Utah National Guard, local jurisdictions—including county emergency managers—and school districts were involved. The exercise also relied heavily on simulated alerts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Brig. Gen. Scott Harrison, Deputy Commander of Joint Forces Headquarters, briefs Guard personnel on the exercise in Draper.

Photo by Shad West

Brig. Gen. Scott Harrison, Deputy Commander of Joint Forces Headquarters, briefs Guard personnel on the exercise in Draper.

The exercise also included "use" of the State's emergency notification system and a hotline that received calls from the "public," the "media" and "health-care professionals."

For the National Guard this exercise was a chance to test senior leadership in a scenario that could affect them at a very personal level, said Brig. Gen. Scott Harrison, deputy commander of the Utah Guard’s Joint Forces Headquarters.

“This is a scenario that is brand new to us,” he said. “I want to see how they (leaders) organize themselves and see how they respond to a very personal crisis.”

Harrison, an astute student of history, believes that past epidemics have been shown to affect all walks of life, leaving few immune from its effects.

Lt. Col. Charles Dressen monitors event traffic on the incident-management system at the State Capitol EOC.

Photo by Shad West

Lt. Col. Charles Dressen monitors event traffic on the

incident-management system at the State Capitol EOC.

 “We may have personnel who have family members affected by an outbreak such as this, or our own senior leadership who may be home sick themselves,” he said.

Besides using the exercise as a way to gauge Guard readiness, Harrison said the pandemic exercise is a way to tighten relations with other State agencies.

 "This is an opportunity to close up any gap there may be between us and other State agencies. We didn’t experience a gap with Katrina and Rita, but we just don’t have an opportunity to work with State officials as often as we would like,” he added.

Major Andrew Archuleta was the Utah National Guard liaison in the EOC at the Capitol and was the first to be notified that the State needed the Guard’s help.

Exercise participant Paulette Valentine, left, reviews equipment lists with Sgt. Camron Haag at Montezuma Creek.

Photo by Shad West

Exercise participant Paulette Valentine, left,

reviews equipment lists with Sgt. Camron Haag.

“Their first phone call was to me and they asked us to provide security for the EOC,” he said.

Archuleta immediately arrived at the Capitol to get a situation briefing on the exercise and called the J3, the Guard’s operations officer, advising him of the event.

As the EOC began getting requests from local level government throughout the State, it tasked state agencies to handle the requests. For this exercise the National Guard’s role was critical.

“We have a very limited role because it is a public health exercise,” said Archuleta. “At this point we assigned security here at the EOC and are looking into other taskings such as controlling the Strategic National Stockpile at the Salt Lake Air Base.”

Archuleta said once the tasking to distribute the stockpiled supplies was issued, either the highway patrol or National Guard would handle the delivery of those supplies to the distribution centers in the health districts.  For health districts along the Wasatch Front, delivery over the state highway system would be adequate.

A Utah National Guard member, right, assists an employee of UNHS in unloading supplies for a local clinic in Montezuma Creek.

Photo by Shad West

A Utah National Guard member, right, assists an employee of UNHS

in unloading supplies for a local clinic in Montezuma Creek.

For districts in other regions such as Southern Utah, the Guard would more than likely handle the delivery.

“In a case where it is time sensitive to get vaccines to distribution points, we could get those delivered within a few hours with our Aviation unit,” Archuleta said.

Health officials said that while the National Guard’s role was limited, it was still critical.

“The Guard is instrumental in this exercise, said Dr. Don Wood, MD, medical director and disaster planner for the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services. “They will be flying the vaccinations to our locations.”

Wood continued, “We are so happy that they are involved in this exercise; we are physically, functionally and realistically testing this capability. As far as the Guard’s role in this, this is not a tabletop exercise.”

Harrison, who chose not to know the full exercise scenario before it began, said the pandemic outbreak was a great tool for the Guard to test its State role.  

“I wanted my senior commanders here to see the types of limitations they may be up against in an exercise scenario,” he said. “That’s why we exercise, to ensure we work out any of those issues we may see.”