By Staff Sgt. Wes Wright, 50th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 13, 2017
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- “Exercise, exercise, exercise, this is the command post. The wing commander has directed an evacuation of all 50th Space Wing non mission-essential personnel … exercise, exercise, exercise.”
This announcement informed hundreds of 50th Space Wing personnel to evacuate the base at 1 p.m. Monday, June 2, 2017; it was not simulated.
Opinicus Vista 17-2, which ran May 30-June 8, is Schriever’s largest exercise of the year and tested the wing’s ability to respond to a natural disaster and an active shooter with a hostage.
The exercise began with a build-up of intelligence showing increased threats to Schriever Air Force base and its detachments, including a simulated active shooter at New Boston Air Force Station, New Boston, New Hampshire. This forced the wing to not only address security concerns locally and abroad, but also to adjust to address emerging threats. Simultaneously, a wildfire started near Schriever and eventually made its way on the base, forcing commanders to react with escalating emergency response actions that culminated in a base evacuation.
Many times, evacuations and other large scale logistical actions are simulated due to their real world impact on operations. However, for this exercise, the 50 SW commander authorized exercise planners to go all out with the scenario to realistically test Schriever’s emergency response actions.
“Exercises make us prepared for real world situations,” said Capt. Devin Shipp, 50 SW Exercise Program manager. “It’s all about preparing your mind and practicing like when we’re young and playing sports. If you don’t have that every day on the practice field and you’re in the game during a clutch moment, it’s not going to go well.”
During the fire, evaluators looked at Schriever’s emergency notification, fire department and logistics processes. They also keyed in on ensuring the safety of children inside the Child Development Center.
“Evacuating the CDC was a key objective of the exercise,” Shipp said. “The safety of Schriever’s children is paramount. We wanted to test our ability to get them quickly and safely off the installation, and it went really smoothly. I was impressed by the quickness of the evacuation. Security Forces was out there doing their job to efficiently move traffic off the base. It flowed very smoothly.”
Fortunately for Schriever, “simulated heavy rains” extinguished the fire and operations were able to return to normal. The base wasn’t able to rest for long, however, as threats began to increase in proximity to Schriever, culminating in an active shooter and improvised explosive device exercise at the base.
The base’s security forces, medical and fire department personnel worked hand-in-hand with El Paso County emergency responders to respond to and eliminate the threat.
“The active shooter was a very labor intensive portion of the exercise,” said Tech. Sgt. Martin Howard, 50 SW/IG exercise team chief. “We have agreements and relationships with local law enforcement that help us handle situations like this exercise.”
According to Howard, these community relationships are key to the successful execution of Schriever missions and must be periodically evaluated.
“The relationships we have are huge,” Howard said. “Schriever is a tiny base out here in the middle of nowhere. If we don’t have those relationships with Ellicott Fire Department, El Paso County Sheriff’s office, Colorado Springs Police Department and Rocky Mountain Global Medical, these situations would be much more difficult to handle.”
Schriever’s interaction with their community counterparts impressed Capt. Tracey Harris, 50 SW/IG exercise team lead.
“I was with fire and emergency medical technicians,” Harris said. “They all did a really good job. It was cool to watch them set up the triage area. That coordination is there, and that is what we were looking for in this exercise.”
While Schriever could draw upon support from nearby military installations like Peterson Air Force Base, exercise planners simulated Peterson being unable to support due to dealing with exercise threats on their own base.
“We know Peterson would render aid, but it’s very important to have community relations to test for every possible scenario,” Harris said. “In emergency situations, nothing ever goes exactly as planned so you have to be prepared for the worst.”
The exercise evaluators were impressed with how Schriever’s Airmen reacted to the threat.
“I was really happy to see how facility occupants responded,” Howard said. “They treated it like it was real world and did everything they were supposed to do in that scenario. Also, I was with the team that took out the active shooter; and they did an extremely good job.”
Shipp said there were areas for improvement during the exercise, but that it was a good thing.
“We obviously have findings--things we need to improve upon, but that’s the entire point of conducting an exercise,” Shipp said. “We’d rather learn lessons in a non-life or death situations like exercises. Nobody wants to make critical decisions for the first time in a real world situation.”
According to Howard, the success and value of the exercise would not have been possible without the ability to fully act out many courses of action, rather than simulating them.
“In my opinion, the way leadership directed the exercise was awesome,” Howard said. “The main goal was to make it as realistic as possible. Colonel Burt let the exercise play out as realistically as possible by minimizing simulations. In my career, that is one of the biggest challenges with exercises – so many things are simulated; but the way leadership played this out was perfect.”
Howard’s boss, Shipp, agreed.
“We couldn’t do anything without the commander giving us that amount of leeway,” Shipp said. “We had her full support to make it happen. We are better prepared for these scenarios now, directly due to the support of leadership.”
Schriever’s exercise team will carry lessons learned forward into OV 17-3, which is tentatively scheduled to run Sept. 11-15.