Shadow Government — Concept of Operations:
I am ordering our bombers back to fail-safe. We might have go through with this thing after all.
Yes, Mr. President…
The work atmosphere at Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a different feel than anything I had ever experienced before in either my public or private sector work life.
The jobs, both on the front line and the back office, each come with the pressure you might expect when you are in a zero tolerance business of trying to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to and recover from every conceivable threat and hazard from hurricanes and improvised nuclear device detonations to earthquakes and cyber-attacks. We are responsible for leadership, management, oversight and execution of our duties without mistakes or errors — cognizant that such failures could cost time, money and lives. Let me tell you about a day in the life of a senior analyst at DHS Headquarters when things seemed to go from bad to worse.
Before we get started, it is important to know that there is a subset of employees who in addition to their day job, are also designated as “essential personnel.” These employees are trained, equipped, prepared and available to report to work during catastrophic incidents, emergencies and other events, as required. All essential personnel are both cross-trained and “vertically” trained to be able to perform the functions of their peers and those persons above and below them in an emergency. Each individual certifies that without regard to family or personal safety, they will perform, as required:
Under Any Circumstances.
Now, let’s return to the story.
It all started on a day that was just like any other day. It was 9:42 am. I was in a meeting when I received an emergency notification alert indicating that the Continuity of Government Readiness Conditions (COGCON) level changed from COGCON 4, or steady state, to COGCON 2, and that preparations should be in place to move to COGCON 1 within 4 hours. At COGCON 1, leadership and staff are dispersed and designated leadership and continuity staffs are directed to reconvene at alternate facilities either as a result of, or in preparation for, a catastrophic emergency. This is done to preserve or enhance the odds that key personnel will survive to continue essential functions.
Thirty minutes later the move was made to COGCON 1 and the staff headed out. I took the METRO back to my car in the suburbs and drove to the designated alternate facility. After driving through nothing but small towns for some time, I came around the corner to see a fence that was considerably higher than the fence nearby farms used to retain their livestock…envision something more like Jurassic Park than rural America. I turned through the gate into a drive and headed toward what looked like a barn that seemed to swallow the vehicles that passed into its depth.
I skirted around the structure to present my credentials for verification at a check point. I was cleared and parked in a field as helicopters came and went from the incongruent heliport adjacent to the barn.
I grabbed my bag and headed across the field to a cluster of buildings.
I entered a one story frame structure and passed through a maze of desks and workers that appeared to be lost in time.
Despite the location, phones were ringing and they seemed engrossed in their business, not even bothering to look up as I passed through their midst. I entered their break room which was comfortably furnished with a green vinyl davenport and a vintage Zenith television cabinet that, from the appearance, dated to the early 60’s.
I then arrived at a non-descript door. I used my key to unlock the door which led to a brightly lit ramp. The long ramp led down to a landing with an open door leading to a stairwell, an elevator, and another more substantial door with multiple mechanical and electronic locks.
The doorman, clad in tactical apparel including an automatic weapon, checked my credentials again, before I emptied my pockets and put all my things, including watch and cell phone, in a locker and entered the room beyond.
This expansive room was brightly lit with an open floor plan and a multitude of monitors on each wall displaying maps, network news, data and telemetry. Interestingly enough, unlike the others beyond the door, this room was constructed of concrete with not a single window. There was seating for about 125 at dedicated workstations with long tables running the length of the room. I found my seat, booted up and went to work.
Over the next 56 hours those in the room worked to mitigate the effects of Alaska Shield, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, centered in Alaska. This was complimented by the Defense Department through Operation Ardent Sentry which focused on the military support provided to civilian authorities.
Without interruption, we followed developments in the field, deployed resources, contracted for emergency supplies, arranged transportation, and coordinated the response efforts. Everything from the logistics of moving a hundred utility line trucks to assuring a sufficient stock of body bags and arrangements for storage and mortuary services.
Twelve hours into the ordeal, the monitors lit up with a special news bulletin. Shepard Smith was reporting on a developing story. There had been a nuclear weapon accident (NUWAIX) which occurred during a transfer of weapons in a secure convoy in Southwestern Colorado.
Shortly thereafter, a call came in from the White House seeking the necessary intelligence needed to quickly determine the cause and significance, if any, of the accident. We simply opened up another front and detailed staff to add Colorado to the mix.
It wasn’t until the morning of Day 3 that we stood down and transitioned back to normal operations. I had only left the room for brief breaks to get some fresh air or simply stare at the stars for a few minutes. We stuck it out on adrenaline, peanut butter crackers, and caffeine; sustained by a sense of duty and the weight of responsibility to do what we could for those in need.
Once released, exhausted, I returned to my car for a nap before heading home. It was back to the office on Monday. Most of us had been awake for the duration of the event having gone to work at the office on Tuesday and not returned home until mid-day Friday. Our families had no knowledge of our whereabouts during this time. We had no means to communicate with them.
Families understand that this is part of the job.
This is the story of the Alaska Shield and Silver Phoenix exercises conducted in 2014.
FEMA’s National Exercise Program (NEP) serves to test and validate core capabilities. Participation in exercises, simulations, or other activities, including real world incidents, assists organizations in validating their capabilities and identifying shortfalls in a no-fault environment.
These exercises are conducted periodically to explore the challenges associated with examining, prioritizing, and conducting recovery activities involving multiple geographically dispersed and competing events using the National Disaster Recovery Framework.
Actual reporters and news crews are employed to add to the realism although the scenes in the background are pieced together from other incidents. The disaster reports form the filed and requests for support are modeled on similar historic events. These exercises are a like a grown-up version of a RISK-based Homeland Security game, with 100's of players interacting on a nation sized game board moving 1000's of pieces at any given point to meet any number of threats.
And, like RISK, practice makes perfect.
This article was prepared by a current DHS employee in their personal capacity. The story is an accurate representation of the actual event. Any opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Department of Homeland Security, or the United States government.
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To read more from Homeland inSecurity:
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”