If a nuclear incident happened in Montana, key officials don’t want to be meeting each other for the first time.
Military personnel at Malmstrom Air Force Base have regular exercises to test their response procedures and make sure everyone knows what to do and when.
But starting Monday, their training will go to a higher level.
A national exercise, known as NUWAIX 2013, which is executed by U.S. Northern Command and sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, will bring about 1,000 people to Montana throughout the exercise. The exercise isn’t expected to disrupt the community, but locals may notice additional vehicle traffic in and out of the base, increased helicopter activity and some personnel in hazmat suits or “tent cities” at some of the exercise sites. The majority of the exercise will be contained at Malmstrom and Fort Harrison in Helena.
Personnel from a variety of local and federal agencies, primarily the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Energy, Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency Region VIII, will augment Malmstrom and other Air Force participants.
The exercise will be scenario based, and participants will respond to a nuclear incident, which could be a DOE shipment in the state, an attack on a nuclear missile site, hostile action on base or the missile field or a range of scenarios.
“If that day were to happen, we want to kind of go on autopilot,” Col. Rob Stanley, 341st missile wing commander at Malmstrom, said.
The idea is to exercise procedures but also to build relationships among the key players so they aren’t meeting for the first time during an actual emergency, especially one involving nuclear weapons.
Federal, state and local agencies have emergency response plans, but anything involving a nuclear weapon initiates a higher response and having both military, government and civilian agencies understand the plan, lingo and how the others operate is critical.
“If it were to involve a nuke, we don’t have a lot of time,” Stanley said. “It helps prevent any delay in response actions.”
The last of these large scale exercises at Malmstrom was in 2004, and the last one on a nuclear base was held at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Stanley said. Malmstrom personnel conducted an internal exercise about two weeks ago, he said.
Improved relationships with local and federal agencies has been a significant asset to emergency response planning, Stanley said. Information and resource sharing has become more standard in addition to better communication.
“The threat environment has changed over that time, we have to adjust,” he said.
Another big change in recent years is communication with the public, he said. A team from Global Strike Command in Louisiana will come to Montana to supplement Malmstrom public affairs so they can train on sharing information with the media and the public.
“Because if something happens, people need to know,” Stanley said.
About 1,000 people will come to Montana throughout the weeklong exercise. Many of them will be in Great Falls, but the exercise will be conducted at several states statewide.
That could result in about $140 per person per day, according to city data, meaning about $700,000 could be spent in Montana during the exercise.
Vince Kolar with Cascade County Disaster and Emergency Services said some local first responders will participate in the exercise.
“If the real thing happens, the locals are probably going to be the first ones on the scene. We’re usually pretty involved in local exercises,” Kolar said. “(The military) command structure is a little different than ours and once there’s a nuclear weapon involved, it’s a different show. It’s a little different situation for these responders than they’re used to.”
From the state level, the National Guard and state emergency responders will participate. Ed Tinsley, director of Montana DES, said in the three years he’s been on the job, there have been three presidential disasters declared in Montana.
“Our motto is that you don’t want to meet the person you’re going to be working with at the disaster. We know what to expect, how to talk their language, they know how to talk our language,” Tinsley, an Army veteran, said. “Nothing in the world like on the ground training.”
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