Living on the Ohio, Massac Countians are all too familiar with what the river can throw their way.
But what about when those threats aren’t made by Mother Nature?
That was the premise of a security exercise called the Marine Safety Unit Paducah River Watch Functional Exercise that was conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard, Marine Safety Unit (MSU) Paducah on Sept. 9 at the Metropolis Community Center.
Joining the Coast Guard were members of the Metropolis Fire Department, Metropolis Police Department, Massac County 9-1-1, Illinois State Police, Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Illinois Conservation Police, Kentucky Emergency Management, Kentucky State Police, Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife, McCracken County Sheriff’s Office, Paducah Police Department, Paducah Fire Department, FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
These groups composed the exercise’s players whose reactions to the different scenarios of the exercise were assessed by evaluators who “focused on a different aspect — law enforcement, fire, emergency management — and listen in to make sure certain things that need to be covered are being discussed,” explained Harry Masse, Metropolis Department of Public Safety director. “We don’t want them to assume anything — like that because there are injuries the ambulance is on its way.”
In addition there were observers — Metropolis Mayor Don Canada, Paducah City Commissioner Raynarldo Henderson and McCracken County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer — watching the daylong exercise, that dealt with homegrown terrorism and different components that could occur on the Ohio River, affecting residents of Massac and McCracken counties and how the various public safety services from both states could react.
“As it’s developing, they’re coming up with plans on how we work together as a team, other assets we might need to bring in, problems that occur during the course of it, logistics and coordination of resources,” Masse said.
The exercise, which was carried out in real time with the day’s weather factored in, also involved non-government agencies including river industries, the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service Paducah. It concluded with a hotwash, providing “each group a chance to speak and summarize what they did, saw, wouldn’t do, would’ve done,” Masse said.
U.S. Coast Guard, MSU Paducah usually holds such exercises on a yearly basis. The last was in 2017. For Cmdr. Jennifer Andrew and many members of her MSU Paducah staff, the exercise was an opportunity to meet their area partners.
Originally from San Antonio, Andrew most recently served at MSU Port Arthur, Texas. She took over as commanding officer of MSU Paducah on June 4.
“A lot of times when a new commanding officer comes in, you’ll have a big event and time for everybody to meet and greet. With COVID, we couldn’t do that,” Andrew said. “Granted, it’s an exercise, but it is at least an introduction. Heaven forbid something happen — we don’t want to meet our counterparts as the event is unfolding and there’s already too much going on, not knowing who to call, not knowing the resources they bring to the table.”
Andrew noted the exercise was one way to make others aware of the Coast Guard’s presence on the Ohio.
According to Lt. John Gulick, public affairs officer with MSU Paducah, “with the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, through Paducah and Metropolis there is a very large amount of commerce that goes up and down the river. This river system connects the north, the east and the south. New Orleans has 70% of commerce going through that port distributed up through the river system — via tug and barge is the most efficient way to do it, as opposed to truck.
“The Coast Guard in that sense is a regulatory agency,” he explained “We work with our industry partners to make sure that commerce flows safely and doesn’t impact the environment or any other negative impacts.”
Through simulations like this one, if “a real event does happen, we know what connections we need to go to, we have that face-to-face contact,” Gulick said. “It insures we’ve thought through everything to be as prepared as possible for the real thing.”
Andrew was appreciative things were worked out to hold the exercise in person while also adhering to COVID safety protocols.
“It’s very important we got together in person to do this exercise. It’s going to go a long way to help us,” she said. “We really prefer to practice for the thing that hopefully never happens, but if it does, we’re going to be ready.”
The Sept. 9 River Watch Functional Exercise was put together by the Coast Guard’s exercise support team, whose job is to help units throughout the Coast Guard plan and prepare exercises. MSU Paducah port security/intelligence operations director Rande Plemons worked with the team for several months to put the exercise together.
“She tells them what things we need to accomplish, that way we can make sure we have these different injects that will meet these different things we’re trying to accomplish,” Andrew said. “We have a simulation cell that’s made up of people from this exercise support team, industry and local law enforcement. They’ve figured out this is a real world type of event, what are things that would likely occur based on everybody’s years of training and experience.
“In theory, we know based on all that experience, when somebody hears this, they’re going to do that. If we don’t do that, the Sim Cell knows they forgot to do X or Y, so they’ll do a prompt to help us along that way. The exercise support team also has evaluators who go around and hear the conversations, and if it’s not going the way it’s supposed to go, they’ll help along the way. They’re here to help and make sure we do the correct steps as we work through the process.”
The planning sessions included law enforcement, subject matter experts and industry and emergency management “so we would have a more realistic view of what could possibility unfold on the river,” Plemons said. “The ultimate goal is to validate the Area Maritime Security Plan.”
“The biggest thing (to learn from the day) is we all get to know each other, find out the strengths, weaknesses, assets and vulnerabilities we bring to the table, things we can work on as soon as we leave here,” she said. “The exercise itself has a number of objectives as far as communication, but I think at the end of the day if we know each others’ faces, phone numbers and what each other does, we’re going to be OK.”
Communication was key for players during the event.
“It seem like in any situation, the biggest thing is the communication problem — in reality, it’s trying to get radios to work with (other agencies),” said Sgt. Kris Taylor with the Illinois Conservation Police. “Quite frankly, all we have contact with is the Illinois State Police on radios and after that it’s phone calls. Then trying to have phone calls with everybody you don’t have phone numbers with. Hopefully with this, we can get better lines of communication between agencies. That’s the biggest situation in any type of emergency situation — getting the communication set up.”
Taylor said he was going to compile the contact list from the day and share it with his officers in case a situation arises.
“Communication is always a problem when it’s out of jurisdiction, out of state,” noted Metropolis Police Department Sgt. Bruce Laird. “There’s a whole lot that goes into something like this. You’ve got numerous federal agencies, state agencies, city and county agencies that have to communicate together. To communicate efficiently and effectively what’s going on as close to real time as possible, it’s really important to coordinate those resources and get them to where they need to be to protect life and property.”
Metropolis Fire Department Chief Micah Tolbert noted the need to “build, continue and advance communication open amongst the agencies involved,” the “communication” theme also revolves to his own staff by “sitting down and talking to the guys what other agencies have, what they bring to the table, what we can offer the other agencies.”
Masse noted “communication — whether it’s ‘we didn’t have enough frequencies’ or ‘we weren’t on the right frequency’ or ‘we didn’t have enough radios’ — that initial, chaotic start-up of ‘what do we have, where are we going to meet?’ ” and not duplicating efforts when resources are limited are among “the biggest negatives of any evaluation.”
Capt. David Archer, Kentucky State Police Post 1 commander, said the exercise allows participants to “train and retrain. We can look over the data and if the actions we did were right, we’re good, and we know we’re where we need to be at. Whatever failings we have, we’ll work on and remediate the problem.”
Andrew noted that while “security incidents of the nature we’re exercising for are rare, it’s good for us to remember we have plans on how to deal with these things,” she said. “We have a plan, trust in the plan, trust in the partners, just learning the roles of what we need to do, learning to communicate with everyone. Collectively, we’ll be able to overcome anything.”
Meteorologists from the National Weather Service Paducah were on site to provide real time wind and weather information for the functional exercise.
“We work with our partners to provide them decision support,” explained Kevin Smith, a NWS Paducah meteorologist. “One of the things we’re doing with this exercise is dealing with whatever the U.S. Coast Guard may be bringing to us. One of the things we can do is provide plume modeling — a way to track the pollutant as it goes through the atmosphere. We can help those in the community, the emergency personnel to focus the area where they can evacuate personnel and get those folks in a safe zone away from where the danger may be.”
Like the other agencies involved, the exercise provided NWS representatives the chance to meet those from other agencies.
“There’s always personnel changing and different things going on in different agencies,” Smith said. “One of the opportunities we have here is it allows us to learn from each other and find ways we can do things more efficiently, get things to the agencies that need them more quickly and in a fashion they can use it to save lives and property. This is our way of working together. When you practice these types of situations and then come to a real event, you’ve got all those organizations and contacts ready to go and save lives. That’s one of our goals as the National Weather Service — we do warnings, watches and advisories, but we also help out in situations that aren’t weather related or have a different aspect of it.”
At the end of the six-hour exercise, Masse was happy with the outcome.
“I think it was great! What a way to show our partnerships, not just with the public entities but with the private also,” he said. “This was a good opportunity to look at each other’s resources, to put faces to names, to develop these partnerships and to make the ones we have stronger.”
Masse noted that while “there’s nothing to say that terrorism or disgruntled employees can’t happen here,” there are also the possible natural disasters from the New Madrid fault to ice storms, floods or tornadoes.
“Those same resources we use to combat terrorism are also going to be used to combat natural disasters. It’s a matter of if and when,” he said.
Plemons said the exercise is just one way “first responders are constantly training and getting better at what they do.”
Masse noted “it was a huge lift to everybody to see the mayor of Metropolis, the judge executive from McCracken County and the councilman from Paducah all there to understand that they’re ultimately responsible to their citizens to take an active role. (Their spending) the whole day there and to get involved, to put input was refreshing to me because a lot of times it falls on my shoulders on this side of the river,” he said. “To have the boss there to see exactly the different pieces of the puzzle and how they lock together and we’re not just spending a bunch of money, that we’re trying to be prepared for the worst that could happen — it was just a great opportunity.”
The Marine Safety Unit Paducah River Watch Functional Exercise wasn’t just a learning experience for the players involved but also the observers.
A key component of the exercise is knowing what agencies are involved and what they can bring to the table.
Canada noted that while the City of Metropolis has an emergency plan, the city, especially over the last six months, has had several personnel changes from a new fire chief to different department heads and elected officials.
“At the end of (the exercise), I realized while talking to Chief Masse we’ve got to update our emergency plan,” he said. “We need to look at our original list, see who needs to be replaced and make a new list of priorities for who responds in an emergency.”
Going into the Sept. 9 event, Canada said he “really thought I’d just be sitting there watching, but I enjoyed it, and I learned something from it. It turned out to be a good thing, because I wouldn’t have thought to ( update our emergency plan) until something actually happened and we’re scrambling around.
“It was an eye opener that we need to get our own stuff intact.”