Army preps for the big one

Members of 39 Signal Regiment covered plenty of ground Feb 21-23 as they took part in Exercise Mercury Thunder II, a test of the unit’s ability to provide communications support to other military units taking part in earthquake relief operations. Graphic by Capt Jeff Manney, 39 Canadian Brigade Group

Members of 39 Signal Regiment covered plenty of ground Feb 21-23 as they took part in Exercise Mercury Thunder II, a test of the unit’s ability to provide communications support to other military units taking part in earthquake relief operations. Graphic by Capt Jeff Manney, 39 Canadian Brigade Group

Capt Jeff Manney, 39 Canadian Brigade Group ~

It was just a test, but when Major Jeff Hamel showed up for work at his Vancouver unit over the weekend he could feel the ground shaking.

A simulated 8.1 magnitude quake had just struck B.C., triggering Cougar Tremor, the army’s response plan for a major earthquake in the province.

Signallers and line technicians of 39 Signal Regiment, streaming in for a routine training weekend, were given a no-notice order: deal with it.  This was Exercise Mercury Thunder II.

“Normally the army plans in a methodical way – prepare, rehearse and execute a plan to seize that bridge, that sort of thing,” says Maj Hamel, the Regiment’s ‘A’ squadron commander.  “But earthquake response is different.  It’s a call in the middle of the night to get something to work come hell or high water.”

In this exercise, the quake levelled the bridges around Vancouver, brought down a hospital, sent looters rampaging through debris, and pushed citizens, who felt the government wasn’t responding quickly enough, to occupy critical federal land where they could set up their own evacuee camps.

“We all hope we never have to do this. But if it happens, and if we suck at this task, thousands of people will die because we didn’t want to step outside our comfort zone,” Maj Hamel says.

On paper, the task for the Army’s Reserve signallers in a domestic emergency is a simple one – provide communications to military units responding to the disaster. 

“The Canadian Armed Forces is prepared to surge huge capabilities after a catastrophe like this. Hundreds of troops will show up and deal with a problem that has totally overwhelmed the local community.  The job of my unit is to make sure those hundreds of troops can talk to each other.”

Hamel dispatched his signallers as they appeared, cobbling together teams and hastily deploying them to critical communication points throughout the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island: Mt Seymour, Sumas Mountain, Cultis Lake, HMCS Discovery, and the Nanoose transmitter site.  He moved his command post to the Abbotsford Airport.

In an interesting twist, not all those on the radio this weekend were signallers.  In a real emergency, with bridges gone and roads destroyed, some signallers might be unable to report to their unit.  Mercury Thunder II exercised a workaround for this contingency, using infantry and armoured reconnaissance soldiers to help handle the Signals mission.

“Cougar Tremor requires those soldiers who can’t make it in to go to the nearest unit,” Maj Hamel says. “We would expect maybe a third of those reporting to be from other units, so we’d have engineers and medics instead. We have to figure out how to make a radio network with people who may not normally work with radios.”

In other nods to realism, Mercury Thunder’s creative exercise planner Warrant Officer Colette Welch brought in non-unit actors to act as earthquake victims and further test the signallers’ responses. She also introduced video and newspaper reporting, which charted the course of the emergency response in real time and allowed the troops to sense public reaction to their decisions. 

“An earthquake won’t give us any warning, so we need to sharpen our immediate response skills,” WO Welch says. “To do that, we need to be as realistic as possible in our training.”

She hopes the extra effort will pay other dividends as well.

“I want everyone to walk away feeling challenged, feeling better than when they started,” she says. “For our newest soldiers, who haven’t seen this kind of exercise before, I want them to go home and tell their friends ‘look at what we did this weekend, this is so important, this is so awesome’.”

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