Joint Task Force Homeland Defense (JTF-HD) swings into action
during American Samoa earthquake/tsunami relief effort

By Darrell D. Ames, JTF-HD Public Affairs

U.S. Army and Guard personnel assist in preparing supplies for transit to American Samoa U.S. Army and Guard personnel assist in preparing supplies for transit to American Samoa. (Official DoD Photo)

Terrorism, hurricanes, floods, and pandemic influenza outbreaks are providing numerous challenges for today’s world. Joint Task Force Homeland Defense (JTF-HD) is responsible for responding to these events when they occur in the pacific region.

This fact was never more evident following the devastation created by the tsunami that roared into American Samoa Sept. 29. Within minutes of receiving word of an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami in American Samoa, elements of the U.S. Army Pacific were alerted, including JTF-HD.

"That’s our mission. That’s what we do," said Lieutenant Colonel Robin Lau, JTF-HD Chief of Operations. "Once we were aware of the situation, we activated our Joint Operations Center 24 hours a day," added Lau. The 8.4 magnitude earthquake struck near the Samoa Islands region causing the destruction along the eastern side of American Samoa, a U.S. possession. JTF-HD was activated shortly after receiving unofficial notice of the tsunami through the news media.

Working in unison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), other federal agencies and civil authorities, and various Department of Defense (DoD) elements, JTF-HD coordinated much of the relief effort from the operations center at Fort Shafter, Hawaii.

"Our staff did a tremendous job," said Colonel Chels Chae, U.S. Army Pacific Deputy Chief of Staff, Contingency Command Post and JTF-HD Chief of Staff. "We tasked them with standing up the operations center in a very short period of time and pushed them daily with difficult missions – and they excelled," Chae added.

The JTF-HD staff communicated daily with the various elements across the Joint Operations Area (JOA) including the Defense Coordinating Element (DCE) on ground in Samoa, FEMA representatives in Washington D.C. and Oakland, Calif., the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the National Guard elements in Samoa and more.

"It was a total team effort," said LTC Lau. "I was not only impressed with our staff and the way they handled the challenging situation," he added, "but also with the other services which included FEMA, the US Coast Guard, the Hawaii National Guard, US Army Reserve, and everyone else that responded in this effort."

U.S. Army and Guard personnel during the American Samoa tsunami disaster relief effort U.S. Army and Guard personnel during the American Samoa tsunami disaster relief effort. (Official U.S. Army Photo)

JTF-HD personnel were not limited to performing their duties only in Hawaii. Two staff members deployed to American Samoa during the initial standup. "We sent two people downrange on the very first day," said Major John Parrish, JTF-HD Executive Officer. "We sent Amir Abdmishani and Michael Machado to American Samoa to assess damage, conduct analysis, and act as a liaison to the Defense Coordinating Officer (DCO) and National Guard unit," added Parrish.

"We are charged with coordinating DoD support to civil authorities during a natural or man-made disaster," said Master Sergeant Paul Price, JTF-HD Senior Enlisted Soldier. "We also support federal, state and local governments to coordinate and execute a response to a disaster," Price added. JTF-HD is part of the National Response Framework (NRF), formerly known as the Federal Response Plan (FRP), and is primarily responsible for defeating terrorist, and other asymmetric threats and overcoming disasters involving Hawaii and U.S. Territories and Possessions within the Pacific Command area of responsibility. They are also responsible for conducting Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations for all hazards in the region. "Responding to, preparing to respond, and response training for these events make up the bulk of our workday," said Mr. Mel Garcia, JTF-HD Deputy Chief. "Our efforts are crucial because of the damage inflicted by terrorists and natural disasters," he added.

JTF-HD recently concluded their two primary exercises (Makani Pahili, and Lightning Rescue) and is gearing up for the 2010 versions already. "Conducting realistic exercises are essential tools to prepare our staff and its interagency partners to immediately respond in a crisis" said Pete Hoskam, JTF-HD Intelligence Planner. He added "We learn to work together, under pressure, during these demanding events". His boss, Colonel. David Norton, JTF-HD Chief Officer, amplified these comments with his training philosophy, "we are constantly challenging our disaster and security preparedness efforts."

In addition to executing land based operations to defeat terrorist threats to the homeland and conducting DSCA operations for all hazards including responding to and recovering from natural or man-made disasters, JTF-HD also provides Subject Matter Expert Exchange (SMEE) teams to provide training and expertise in the region. "The SMEE program only enhances our role in disaster preparedness exercises such as Makani Pahili and Lightning Rescue. Efforts such as these are crucial to meeting the trials of the future," added Mr. Garcia.

"We facilitate a tiered response, where incidents are managed at the lowest jurisdictional level possible," COL Norton stated. "Disasters are increasingly costly and that’s one reason why disaster preparedness and management has never been so important," he added.

Major Stan Garcia and Lt. Col Roger Groll in the JTF-HD operations center during the American Samoa tsunami disaster relief effort Major Stan Garcia and Lt. Col Roger Groll in the JTF-HD operations center during the American Samoa tsunami disaster relief effort. (JTF-HD Photo by Darrell D. Ames)

JTF-HD is based in Fort Shafter, Hawaii and began operations in 2004. The Army plays the lead role, but the task force is comprised of all branches of the military. The SMEE seminars are part of a five step process to improve incident management of its state and local counterparts. The SMEE process includes site and facility surveys (leading to disaster plan reviews), gap analyses (pinpointing resource and skill shortages), and major exercises (testing the disaster plans).

Homeland Defense against a wide range of asymmetric threats to include; terrorists, cyber attacks, and transnational criminal organizations, requires a coordinated Federal and Department of Defense (DoD) effort. Throughout the Pacific, from Hawaii to Guam and Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, JTF-HD plays a number of Homeland security roles.

The Commander of US Pacific Command at Camp Smith, Hawaii, designated JTF-HD as the Homeland Defense coordinating agency between DoD and the civilian authorities in the Hawaii, Guam and the other local governments. Working closely with Department of Homeland Security and the military organizations in the Pacific, JTF-HD develops a Common Operating Picture and coordinates implementation of a comprehensive Critical Infrastructure Program.

"We can learn a great deal from past disasters, but we dare not wait for another to ensure that we are prepared for the future," said Mr. Garcia. Ever since President Jimmy Carter merged many of the disaster preparedness agencies into FEMA in 1979, in order to centralize federal emergency functions, the United States has been responding to various disasters across the nation. Following the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2001, FEMA was integrated with 22 other agencies and offices into the Department of Homeland Security by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to further centralize federal emergency functions.

One of the most important developments in recent years was the disaster management legislation passed in the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act (passed in 2006), which significantly reorganized FEMA and closed gaps that were revealed during the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "The NRF is a guide to how the Nation conducts all-hazards response," Mr. Hoskam said. "It was written primarily for elected and appointed government officials and NGO leaders. After the terrorist attacks in 2001 the demand for a better understanding of incident management and response principles led to the creation of the NRP," he added.

Receiving DSCA and other federal assistance during disasters requires that certain stipulations be met. The first major step is that a declaration of emergency by the president must be established, pursuant to the Stafford Act. In addition, JTF-HD must meet further requirements, as outlined in Department of Defense Directive 3025.15 Military Assistance to Civil Authorities, to conduct DSCA operations. But this doesn’t prevent JTF-HD from conducting various other operations in order to facilitate interagency operability and fulfill its mission.

"We currently assist in planning and conducting the two annual exercises, Makani Pahili and Lighting Rescue," said Mr. Garcia. Makani Pahili, means "great winds" in Hawaiian and is hosted by the state of Hawaii. It is designed to prepare responders for the hurricane season by simulating a hurricane hitting the Hawaiian Islands. The importance of such hurricane preparation was made clear to Hawaiian authorities in 1992 when Hurricane Iniki slammed into the island of Kauai, causing nearly $3 billion in damage.

The Lightning Rescue exercise has generally prepared responders for the threat of pandemic influenza by simulating an inbound airliner carrying passengers that are suspected of being exposed to the Avian Flu. "This year’s exercise focused on a present ‘real-world’ even, the possibility of the H1N1 virus spreading throughout the region," said COL Norton.

JTF-HD’s Makani Pahili and Lightning Rescue exercises, along with its SMEE seminars and other operations, prepare responders for disasters and facilitate interoperability between the organizations and agencies that play roles in the incident management process. JTF-HD sets a prime example of how in the last decade, as a result of devastating disasters such as Hurricane Iniki and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, improvement of our nation’s incident management systems has been substantial.

"We’ve come a long way."Disaster preparedness in the United States has improved dramatically from individual agencies and organizations to the all encompassing Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and even our own JTF-HD,".said Mr. Garcia.

Various disasters have highlight the fact that we can never be too prepared, but the examples set by groups like JTF-HD will undoubtedly ensure that our communities and our nation will be as prepared as possible for the challenges of the future.