FirstNet deployable at the Thunderbird and Whale exercise (Source: Domestic Preparedness, 2022).

Tribal Nations Test Their Communications Capabilities

Thunderbird and Whale was the first-ever national-level exercise thoroughly planned and executed by tribal nations. Lynda Zambrano, executive director of the National Tribal Emergency Management Council (NTEMC), shared her team’s approach to the exercise and how they maximized resources to benefit tribal and non-tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Tribal Nations Take the Lead

The Thunderbird and Whale exercise simulated the scenario of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a resulting 100-foot tsunami so tribal first responders could practice responding to a catastrophic disaster. The exercise covered the area along the Cascadia fault line, spanning from northern California to Alaska, including jurisdictions as far north as British Columbia and as far east as Montana. Satellite communications hubs were also set up in Florida, Virginia, and Southern California to support the operations.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) planned to conduct its traditional Cascadia Rising national-level exercise as a discussion-based engagement. However, tribal public safety organizations wanted to take this further with a full-scale exercise. The natural choice to plan and execute the training was the NTEMC, a network of tribal nations that promote emergency management best practices. According to Zambrano:

Our organization was asked if we would take the lead on a national-level, full-scale functional exercise for the tribes so they could physically engage and exercise their comprehensive emergency management plans.

The challenge was that, instead of the typical 2-4 years to prepare for a national-level exercise, the tribes had six months and no funding. Zambrano said, “A real-life event will not take a vacation or wait on us, so we felt it was imperative that we do this for our tribes.”

The Story of Thunderbird and Whale

Once tribal nations took the lead, they changed the name of the exercise from Cascadia Rising to Thunderbird and Whale to reflect a traditional story within Pacific Northwest tribes that dates back thousands of years. Here is Zambrano’s version of the story and how it relates to the exercise:

Thunderbird soared far out over the placid waters of the ocean. As quick as a flash, the powerful bird darted and seized Whale in its flinty talons and soared away toward the land. Thunderbird carried Whale to its nest in the lofty mountains. The two fought a terrible contest, resulting in shaking and trembling of the earth beneath (representing the earthquake) and a rolling of the great waters (representing the tsunami).

With a new name reflecting their heritage, the tribes planned and coordinated a realistic exercise that would benefit the tribal and non-tribal communities in the Pacific Northwestern U.S.

Communications as a Priority

With only six months to plan, the tribes initially focused on communications, which FEMA identifies as Emergency Support Function #2 (ESF-2) in the National Response Framework. To create a realistic exercise, the tribes simulated zero communications after the earthquake hit. “We told everybody they had to turn off their cell phones and couldn’t use their laptops or answer email or text messages,” said Zambrano. The plan for initial communications was to use ham radios, which do not rely on infrastructure like towers and can operate on battery or solar power.

The next critical step was to get a FirstNet deployable on-site. FirstNet deployables are stationed around the country and can be on-site within 14 hours of the initial request. Using ham radios to send an email via radio pathways, they contacted the FirstNet Response Operations Group at AT&T, led by former first responders. Based on the assessed public safety needs, the group guided the deployment of the FirstNet deployable assets. In the case of this exercise, the group deployed a FirstNet SatCOLT (satellite cell on light truck) to the NTEMC’s emergency operations center to provide connectivity via satellite. The SatCOLT also came with a cache of FirstNet devices that responders could test in real-time, using features like push-to-talk.

Tribal nations maximized their resources and tested their emergency communications capabilities to benefit all communities in the Pacific Northwest.

“The assumption was that, due to the earthquake, we had no cellular communications and very limited email and data until a SatCOLT arrived,” said Zambrano. “I am very proud and happy to report that everything ran extremely smoothly, and the support was there and on time. By the following day, we were able to initiate cell phone, email, and internet traffic.” Communications are one of the most valuable tools in responding to disasters. “The FirstNet SatCOLT was a critical piece of equipment for us to be able to communicate with the outside world during the disaster,” said Zambrano. “Without it, we would have been dead in the water for a very long time.”

Exercise Benefits the Community

With communications secured, the tribes expanded the exercise to encompass all 15 emergency support functions. “This truly became a full-scale exercise,” said Zambrano.

The Thunderbird and Whale participants used the exercise’s resources to assist communities in the Pacific Northwest directly. Pilots – who volunteered to provide transportation for the exercise’s food distribution agencies – distributed 80,000 pounds of food, water, and supplies to coastal tribal nations and local food banks, just as they would in an actual disaster.

Another benefit of the exercise was that participating tribes learned each other’s best practices for emergency management. “One of the tribes engaging in this exercise saw what we were doing and said, ‘Why are we not working with FirstNet?’ And they immediately had FirstNet come out and do a presentation. Now they’re shifting all their first responders to FirstNet,” said Zambrano.

She stressed that, even considering all the other benefits, the real point of the exercise was saving lives. “I really wanted to bring the focus back to the number of lives that were saved by conducting this exercise,” said Zambrano. “If we don’t talk about the number of lives saved, then we’ve lost the point of having communications.”

Exercise Support

The Thunderbird and Whale exercise used a template from the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) planning documents. The FirstNet Authority offers support to emergency managers preparing similar plans through the agency’s Network Experience Engagement Program (NEEP), which includes:

  • Pre-incident or event support,
  • An exercise injects catalog, and
  • Post-incident or event reviews.

This article was updated with permission from the First Responder Network Authority.

Bruce Fitzgerald
Bruce Fitzgerald

Bruce Fitzgerald is the First Responder Network Authority’s senior public safety advisor for Emergency Management. Prior to joining the FirstNet Authority, he worked at AT&T as a FirstNet principal consultant for Maine and Vermont, where he partnered with public safety agencies to adopt and implement FirstNet. He has experience in crisis management, fiscal and program direction, and government relations at the federal, state, and local levels. He worked for 14 years at the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), serving as the state emergency management and homeland security director among other roles. He also served as chair of the Governor’s Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC). He has served as the FEMA Region 1 vice president, national committee co-chair, and member of the board of directors for the National Emergency Management Association and worked closely with state partners and Canadian provinces through the Northeast States Emergency Consortium and the International Emergency Managers Group. During statewide emergencies, he served as the emergency operations center coordinator with responsibility for coordinating the Emergency Response Team and Disaster Recovery Team. In that role, he responded to the St. Patrick’s Day and Patriot’s Day disasters in 2007, a statewide ice storm in 2014, and national hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Irene, and Sandy. In 2012, he led a team of state and private officials and the National Guard to assist the City of New York in recovering from Hurricane Sandy.



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