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MacDill's master of disaster plans for the worst: exercises chief creates chaos to prepare base for emergencies

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Fuel spills are a favorite disaster among MacDill planners. This mock spill was off base and involved MacDill and Tampa emergency responders.

Maj. Larry Cresswell likes to put his feet up at home and watch a little TV. He enjoys movies with gratuitous amounts of destruction and panicking masses. Dramatic TV shows documenting natural disasters are most interesting and when the nightly news reports a private plane has crashed into a house, to the uninitiated he may seem almost giddy.

He's not morbid, as anyone who has encountered the towering, good-natured chief of exercises and inspections knows; his interest is purely professional.

Disasters, real and imagined, are grist for the major's mayhem mill. While he may delight in disorder and covet calamity, it's all in the name of readiness.

Major Cresswell's job is to be a student of disasters in order to deal with them should they happen. But he doesn't just plan for disasters; he and the team in 6th Wing Exercises and Inspections office create the disasters themselves. Their next big production is the calamity of Air Fest 2005.

Just what that mock disaster will consist of is secret, but Major Cresswell promises it will be a good one, complete with deaths and injury, national media attention, panicked spectators topped with a sprinkling of severed limbs.

The scenario is set. One joint planning meeting with Tampa and Hillsborough County emergency services has been held and a couple more will be needed before the exercise is held March 9. Base operations will not stop that day, but the impact and disruption will be significant, said Major Cresswell. Nearly every unit and squadron in the Wing will be participating to some degree. The planning of a Major Accident Response Exercise is so involved the event itself is almost anticlimactic, said Major Cresswell.

The process of disaster planning is somewhat like what Hollywood screenwriters go through. In fact, a detailed script is the result of every MARE. For Major Cresswell a good disaster flick can be an inspiration, but real life is the best source for material and after Sept. 11, 2001, there is little out of bounds when it comes to considering possible scenarios.

"It used to be I would limit myself somewhat so as not to get too far out there but after 9/11 all bets are off," said Major Cresswell. "Now you could tell me a squirrel is going to come through the gate loaded with explosives and I'd believe you."

The terrorists may have raised the bar, but emergency scenarios still must be planned carefully so that they ring "true" and are relevant to MacDill. Realism, believability of the circumstances and good actors all contribute to a successful MARE.

Major Cresswell said the planning process involves looking at past training events and sometimes talking to planners at other bases. Municipal emergency responders spend a good deal of time planning for the worst and are a rich source for the MacDill crew when it comes time to cook up some pretend chaos.

When it comes time to bring the script to life, good actors are a must.

"People getting into their roles and doing a good acting job are very important," said Major Cresswell. "Screaming and hysteria at the right time adds to the realism and help get the stress level up for everyone involved."

The art of mock disasters is giving everyone a good test without going over the top, he said. You can have too many victims but he realizes that after treating 30 or 40 it doesn't serve much purpose for training and just ends up being repetitive and wears everyone out.

He also noted there must be planning for disasters within the disaster. Several times in the past real emergencies have occurred during an exercise, such as a heart attack at the base gym, a gate crasher and a real fire.

Major Cresswell said most people are aware when a mock emergency is in the works, but there are those who stumble onto the base and get caught up in what appears to be the real deal. It catches some, including retired vets who visit infrequently, off guard sometimes and he recalls a couple of times ground burst explosives causing people some alarm. Special care is taken to inform Central and Special Operations Commands to be prepared and expect the commotion around the base on exercise days.

A big part of an Airfest MARE is simulating the effect of thousands of panicked people, jamming traffic, crossing barricades and trying to get off base.

"You'd be surprised what you can do with 30 people," said Major Cresswell. When set upon the temporary command post or a security forces member charged with crowd control, "that's enough people to make a guy's life very miserable."

Participation by the Tampa Police Department, Fire Rescue and other services, which bring in fire trucks and crews, adds realism. While well scripted, it is not unusual to discover unforeseen problems or issues as an exercise unfolds. Everyone rolls with it and adapting on the fly is very beneficial to the training, said Major Cresswell. Assessing the way everyone responds comes in what is known as the "hot wash" held the following day. The exercise is graded and a report goes to the base commander. In the case of an event like the Airfest, a good exercise provides the assurance the base is prepared. Should the exercise expose significant shortcomings, Major Cresswell said his first recommendation is to hold another exercise.

MacDill servicemembers usually do an excellent job, said Major Cresswell.

"We have an excellent crew out here," he said. "Our big three (fire department, police department and Medical Group) are the best and our Fire Department has to be the best in the Air Force. They are on top of it."

With its back covered by county and city emergency services, MacDill is prepared for the very worst so it can be its very best.

 

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