Senior Army Guard Leader Describes Tornado Response
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 21, 2013 Some 250 Oklahoma National Guard members are helping with recovery efforts after a massive tornado pounded an Oklahoma City suburb yesterday, killing at least 24 people and leaving neighborhoods, homes and businesses flattened or twisted, a senior Army National Guard leader said today.
Oklahoma National Guardsmen respond to the devastation caused by a deadly tornado that struck Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kendall James
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Brig. Gen. Emery Fountain is an Army National Guard member from Oklahoma, who normally makes his home a few miles from Moore, where the tornado struck. Fountain currently works in the national capital region as support special assistant to Army National Guard Director Lt. Gen. William E. Ingram Jr., but has been in close contact with his counterparts at home.
“They’ve established a perimeter around the location … that was most affected, [and] they’re managing traffic in and out of that area where the destruction was most significant,” he said. “They’re also providing clean, potable water to the first responders and the folks that are involved in the response.”
Fountain noted that as a longtime Guard member in his home state, he has responded to previous disasters, including the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. He also responded to previous tornados, he noted, so when yesterday’s monster storm hit, he knew his fellow Guard troops would kick into gear.
“You know it’s a rapidly evolving situation,” he said. “And you also know that there are first responders -- local, state, and federal in many cases -- that are immediately responding.” In such circumstances, National Guard members act as enablers to help those first responders do what they do, Fountain said.
He noted state emergency management offices have the lead in initial response, and National Guard forces are one of the resources they can call on.
Right now, Fountain said, about 250 Guard members are helping in disaster relief efforts, from a total of 6,384 in the state and a regional Guard force of 45,272, made up of members from Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas along with Oklahoma’s citizen-soldiers.
“All the states are very well postured, based on their demographics, to support their population,” he noted.
The Guard has a very robust reporting system, the general said.
“So you allow the leadership there, within the Oklahoma National Guard, [to] push information to us, rather than us to be part of their challenge, and clogging their networks with requests for information,” Fountain said. “Because of our standard operating procedures, they know how frequently we need information. … We pretty much are on the receiving end.”
Typically as disaster response efforts evolve, he said, “the National Guard Bureau has a team that we send forward -- and that team is, in fact, en route [to Oklahoma] -- that is there to offer them liaison to the entire ‘Guard Nation,’” or the Army and Air National Guards of all U.S. states and territories and the District of Columbia.
Fountain said he contacted Oklahoma Guard leaders yesterday to send his thoughts and prayers and offer any resources needed.
“We don’t want to inundate them with manpower and resources that would just get in the way,” he noted. “We right now are very much just in a posture to respond to their needs, and thankfully, we have a balanced force across the Army and the Air National Guard … and they have a great deal of capacity.”
Fountain explained that while tornados are common in Oklahoma and several other states, the disaster response efforts soldiers train and units plan for are more general in nature.
“We have contingency plans for all types of events,” he noted. “But I found in my time as the operations officer for the Oklahoma Guard that it is best to have very general contingency plans.
“For example,” Fountain continued, “whether you’re reacting to a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake or a high-yield explosive, you’re dealing with failed infrastructure, collapsed structures, you’re dealing with the requirement to secure a specific area -- and so we simply leverage that capability and capacity of those formations within that particular state.”
The National Guard offers states the resource of a force trained and equipped for national defense but able to respond to natural disasters at home, Fountain said.
“And we do it quite well,” he noted. “In this particular case, they immediately went in with … a quick-reaction force, and that initial force is to get there very rapidly -- I wouldn’t say minutes, but hours -- so that we’re there with the first responders. And we normally will establish a perimeter around the incident site.”
Such a perimeter can be large, with multiple traffic control points, but the presence of a National Guard member at such a place and such a time can be calming for local populations and help keep people from putting themselves at risk, he said.
“Our initial focus is always in saving lives and executing a rescue,” he said. “What closely follows that is getting infrastructure back up -- whether it’s broken natural gas lines, power lines that are loose and hot -- and we partner with the local utilities to help them.”
Fountain said National Guard forces bring a particular comfort in disaster settings, because they’re helping family, friends and neighbors.
“The National Guard -- and the country -- has never let down a community,” he said. “So we’re always there. I think they know that. As soon as the public sees uniforms, it’s a calming factor. And their Guardsmen are their brothers and sisters. They get a call … and they report to duty, and they suit up, and they take on citizen-soldier mode and get after it, and stay on the mission until it’s done.”