Story by Regena Kowitz on 08/07/2019A magnitude 7.0 that significantly damages infrastructure and disrupts phone lines. A fast-moving wildfire that destroys buildings, including hospitals, and takes out cell towers. Disasters like these are not just possible along the West Coast, they're probable. When they do occur, Navy Medicine West's (NMW) emergency managers want to make sure they're ready to respond.
During this year's Navy-wide Exercise Citadel Rumble, the NMW emergency management team tested their disaster response capabilities including damage assessment, evacuation planning, and personnel accountability. And, for the second year running, NMW also flexed their alternate communications capabilities.
As a regional command, NMW's area of responsibility extends from Southern California to Washington State and across the Pacific to Hawaii, Guam, and Japan. Maintaining open lines of communication across large distances can be challenging but it is essential because the ability to communicate effectively during a disaster is critical to coordinating response and recovery efforts.
"NMW will be conducting an alternate communications exercise during Citadel Rumble, supporting military hospitals in Oak Harbor and Bremerton that will allow them to transmit command status updates when they have notionally lost their primary means of communications, which are land line and cellular phone, internet and satellite connections said Mike Doggett, NMW deputy emergency manager.
In addition to testing capabilities between San Diego and NMW's hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, a distance of 1,300 miles, Doggett says the region used this exercise and the availability of supporting resources to test alternate communications overseas by establishing radio connections with naval hospitals in Okinawa, Guam, and Yokosuka. Despite impending storms and atmospheric conditions that were not conducive to sustained radio communications, essential messages and information were successfully exchanged.
"When one of our commands experiences a disaster, the commander needs information about their status and any support they may require," Doggett said. "This is important so their requests for support can be either acted on locally or pushed up to Navy Medicine headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, but most importantly so the commander can be kept abreast of the status of all Navy Medicine West staff and the condition of their families. If standard communications are inoperable, the commander can rely on an alternate communications network that has been tested and is ready for use."
Doggett says alternate communications focused on amateur radio systems (colloquially known as HAM systems or HAM operators) that rely on hobbyists around the world. These operators were able to establish connections across multiple states that allowed them to pass messages during the exercise related to simulated facility damage and patient status.
"These systems are governed by the Federal Communications Commission but are off the regular radio networks and, in many cases, remain viable after major disasters," said Doggett. "In San Diego, the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) group supports local hospitals in the event of a communications black out and supported Navy Medicine West for this exercise."
ARES was linked to the various operators in the Pacific Northwest that supported Bremerton and Oak Harbor, Doggett said. The County of San Diego Office of Emergency Services Medical Operations Center deployed ARES to San Diego area hospitals, including the naval medical center, to support intercommunications. In a real-world event, NMW can draw on that support to gain situational awareness of other impacted units.
Also participating in this year's Citadel Rumble were Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington; the Military Auxiliary Radio Services (MARS) located on Whidbey Island; Naval Base Kitsap in Washington State; and Naval Base San Diego.
"The ability to communicate with our commands during and immediately after a disaster is essential for coordinating recovery efforts, providing support and resources, and ensuring our people are safe and accounted for," said Rear Admiral Paul Pearigen, NMW commander and chief of the Navy Medical Corps. "Knowing that we have a tried and true means of communicating with our hospitals and clinics, whether they're up the coast or across the ocean, offers confidence that Navy Medicine West will be able to get status updates from our commands and provide whatever support and assistance they need in the event of an emergency."
Navy Medicine West (NMW) leads Navy Medicine's health care system in the Pacific Rim and the global research and development enterprise. Throughout the region, NMW provides medical care to nearly 700,000 beneficiaries across 10 naval hospitals, two dental centers, and 51 branch clinics located throughout the West Coast of the U.S. and in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan. Globally, NMW oversees eight research laboratories that deliver scientific expertise in support of warfighter health and readiness.