Malmstrom, law enforcement and other agencies train for “very bad day”

Dozens of military vehicles and personnel as well as local, state and federal law enforcement and emergency agencies gathered in Choteau this week.

The exercise is an annul event and part of the Local Integrated Response Plan, which is a presidential policy directive requiring an integrated force for any nuclear incident response plan.

Teton County Sheriff/Coroner Keith Van Setten said intercontinental ballistic missiles and related equipment have been located in their county for 60 years and haven’t always had a coordinated plan for how all agencies would respond.

Since 2011, Malmstrom Air Force Base officials and local law enforcement agencies have been working to create plans and coordinate resources to help each other out should there be a nuclear incident.

The exercise, Van Setten said, helps all involved agencies learn and improve their plans and communication.

Exercises like the one this week are also reassuring to the community, he said, to show residents that there is a plan and agencies continually train to be prepared for what would be a very bad day.

“We train now so we can perform,” Van Setten said. “It’s nice to know the face at the other end of the telephone.”

While the law enforcement, military and other agencies were discussing plans and resources, local children, families and veterans were able to climb on UH-1N Huey helicopters that were later part of the exercise and meet Gina, a military working dog, and Malmstrom dog handlers. They could also touch and learn about some of the gear used by the tactical response force at Malmstrom.

Teton County sent the sheriff, three deputies and dispatchers to participate in the exercise that began with a tabletop discussion at Choteau High School followed by a demonstration of a nuclear convoy being attacked en route to a missile site.

“That’s what we’re planning for, a very bad day,” said Stan Moody, security plans manager at Malmstrom.

The exercise was conducted on private land just past a missile site a few miles from the high school and the property owner’s son played an aggressor in the scenario who bolts from the scene and races down a nearby coulee. Malmstrom officials said that in the scenario, base personnel would coordinate with Van Setten’s team to locate and apprehend him.

This year they were also working with fire agencies to add the realistic fire danger should something happen in weather conditions similar to current conditions. Benefis Health System and local ambulance personnel also participated to address medical responses.

1st Lt. Jamal Washington was the convoy commander in Wednesday’s exercise and said “if something does happen, we don’t want it to be the first time meeting out partners.”

All of the involved agencies have their own procedures, policies and lingo.

“There are some barriers. We speak a different language than some of the other agencies,” Washington said, and it’s good to get on the same page before any major incident occurs.

In the scenario, a convoy from Malmstrom with a truck carrying a nuclear weapon is hit and disabled and the convoy comes under attack. After scene declared safe, meaning the bad guys have been neutralized, they’d call in other agencies to assist with the crime scene and treating wounded to allow the Malmstrom team to ensure the weapon makes it to the site or is otherwise secured.

If a nuclear convoy is ever attacked, it becomes a national defense area, which is an area established on non-federal lands located within the United States, its possessions or territories for safeguarding classified defense information or protecting DoD equipment and/or material, according to a DoD document.

Such an incident would involve officials from high levels of government and the president would be notified, but it would be Malmstrom airmen on the ground and local agencies who would handle the immediate response until the cavalry arrives.

Deb Coverdell heads disaster and emergency services and EMS for Teton county.

The local EMS teams have responded to launch facilities and vehicle incidents in the past in Teton County, she said, and “it’s always different working with the military.”

One of the benefits of the exercise is building relationships on a continual basis, she said.

“It’s always nice to know what’s going to happen instead of getting the call and not being sure,” she said. “Planning pays off.”

Moody said the LIRP involved 15 partners, including local, state, tribal and federal agencies.

The exercise has been conducted annually since 2013 with Wednesday being the largest event since then. Next year’s will be even bigger, Moody said. Last year, the exercise was held in Judith Basin County.

A major component of the planning is communication and how to keep the public calm if an incident were to occur. When people don’t know what’s happening, they panic, he said. Effective communication plans will allow officials to best reach the public and share instructions about areas to avoid or evacuations if necessary, Moody said.

 

About 120 people participated in this week’s exercise, including 11 of the 15 partners. Among them were Teton County, Great Falls Police Department, U.S. Department of Energy, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chouteau County, Wheatland County, Montana’s Division of Criminal Investigation and others.