A field exercise in Pocahontas County last weekend tested the ability of several organizations to respond to what might seem an unlikely event, but one that has become more of a threat – a satellite crashing to earth. Several search and rescue organizations from across West Virginia participated in the exercise.
Due to an increasing amount of space debris, the prospect of a satellite crashing to the ground has become more likely. In 2007, the Chinese blasted one of their own satellites with a missile, to prove to Western nations they could do it. Two years later, a defunct Russian military satellite smashed into an American commercial communications satellite. Those two incidents alone created more than 5,000 particles of space debris.
A piece of space junk smaller than an inch can destroy or disable a satellite. Traveling at more than 25,000 miles per hour, even small particles carry enormous force. The International Space Station has routinely maneuvered to avoid oncoming space debris. As the amount of space junk rises, so does the likelihood of a satellite crashing to earth.
But satellites fall out of orbit for reasons other than space junk, and often contain dangerous materials. In 1978, the Russians lost control of a nuclear-powered reconnaissance satellite, which crashed in Canada and spread radioactive debris across a wide area. Ten of the 12 larger fragments recovered from the crash emitted deadly levels of radiation.
Last weekend’s exercise scenario was similar to the one Canadian officials faced in 1978. Don Ferguson, with the Mountaineer Area Rescue Group, served as operations manager for the exercise.
“In our scenario, we had a satellite that came out of orbit and crash landed here,” he said. “We simulated a situation where we were given a trajectory from NASA or the Air Force. Somebody was tracking that satellite to a certain altitude. At that altitude, they lost contact with the object. Based on the direction of travel, they provided us with an estimated trajectory and an estimated impact zone.”
The search area encompassed a cone-shaped sector of 11,800 acres stretching across Kinnison Mountain. Ferguson divided the area into zones of probability and focused the initial search on a smaller area of 1,700 acres.
Participating units included the West Virginia National Guard, West Virginia Search and Rescue, West Virginia State Police, Civil Air Patrol, Pocahontas County Search and Rescue, Tyler County Search and Rescue, Mountaineer Area
Rescue Group, Hillsboro Fire Department and Pocahontas Memorial Hospital. A total of more than 200 personnel took part in the exercise.
Search teams from various units began a hunt for the satellite on Saturday morning. Before noon, a National Guard Lakota helicopter, using a thermal camera, located the impact point and ground search teams were dispatched to the area.
State Police Sergeant Andrew Teter served as Incident Commander for the exercise. Teter said the goal was to improve communications and cooperation between participating units.
“The event was organized by the Department of Homeland Security as an interoperability exercise between various public service groups, whether it’s military, law enforcement, fire and EMS, and also private sector search and rescue teams,” he said. “The mission for this exercise isn’t as pertinent as just getting everybody working together and getting our communications in line with everybody else.
During the exercise, Teter said communications issues were identified.
“We attempted to integrate some repeater systems from the military into our system,” he said. “Some of the established search and rescue organizations have their own stand alone system, that they have built on and built on, over the years. That’s just the way things worked for years. Trying to interlink and cross-link all those various communications is a challenge. The exercise was set up as a real-world scenario; these are things that happen real world and we’re dealing with it the best way we know how.”
An after-action review was scheduled for Sunday to discuss ways to fix problems identified during the weekend exercise.
“We’re all evaluators,” said Teter. “Tomorrow morning, we’re going to sit down and say, ‘well, this worked and this didn’t work’ and kind of go from there.”
Teter has participated in several actual search and rescue missions, such as a recent search for a lost hiker in Grant County. The officer said he learned techniques on the first day of the exercise that he will use in real life operations.
“I learned things last night at our pre-briefing, before today’s mission even started, that I want to incorporate with my guys and how I will run an operation from this point forward” he said. “Just from listening and talking to other people and going over things.”
Lieutenant Colonel Joe Peal was in charge of National Guard troops during the exercise. Peal said the rugged terrain of Pocahontas County helped identify communications issues.
“We do have some issues but we have people in the field right now working out those issues,” he said. “Everything from simply different frequencies to different radio systems. But they’re working it out. The goal of the exercise is to be able to talk to each other, so we’ll be able to talk to each other.
“One of the biggest problems has been the terrain. We chose this terrain because you don’t have cell service. We don’t have the repeater stations. So, we want to bring in our own organic repeaters and operate in an environment that, typically, we would not have any communications. We want all those challenges that the terrain of West Virginia, particularly this area of Cranberry, affords us.”
A National Guard unit specializing in response to weapons of mass destruction incidents played a key role in the exercise. The National Guard CERFP (chemical, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive enhanced response force package) team practiced their skills in evaluating a radiological hazard. The CERFP is composed of designated members from several Guard units across the state.
Sergeant First Class Stan Luikart said the CERFP team can identify, but normally would not recover radioactive material.
“The search teams will wear personal protective gear and drive to those coordinates, once we get them from the bird in the air,” he said. “Then, we’ll go find it and use our detection equipment to identify it. We are not the people who would recover the debris. We are here to simply monitor it and identify what contamination is present and how bad it is. It would most likely be a civilian agency. If it was radiation, it would most likely be the Department of Energy.”
Pocahontas County Emergency Management Director Shawn Dunbrack said the various units were working well together.
“No real big problems,” he said. “We’re having a few communications issues, but that’s to be expected with the kind of terrain we have here and getting interoperability with all the different groups that are here. Everybody’s getting along great. We’ve got a lot of assets here and it’s working like it’s supposed to.”
A large contingent of Civil Air Patrol cadets supported the weekend exercise. Cadets guarded aircraft, manned security checkpoints and performed a variety of other duties. A Civil Air Patrol aircraft provided an airborne repeater for radio communications. See next week’s edition of The Pocahontas Times for an article on local Civil Air Patrol activities and opportunities.