FORT A.P. HILL, Va. — When disasters occur, life can become chaotic, even tragic. As communities recover, local, state and federal responders are often called to help save lives and enable recovery.

For the Fort Eustis, Va.-based Joint Task Force Civil Support, that helping hand comes in the form of about 88 military units scattered throughout the United States.

In the event of a disaster, the unit deploys to the incident site to provide support to civil authorities. Support personnel include logisticians, communicators, technicians, medical professionals and other key support staff who work side-by-side to help accomplish the most important task at hand during a disaster — save lives, prevent injury and provide critical life support.

The unit conducted a command post exercise, called “Sudden Response 13,” May 20 to 23, to test the movement and capability of JTF-CS in terms of equipment and personnel during the first stage of a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incident.

“Although we may not be in a direct support role to an actual individual, we are giving the people that are providing that role the tools so that they can more efficiently, effectively and expeditiously do the things they need to do for the community to get back to some level of normalcy during a disaster,” said Patty West, deputy director, Communications, JTF-CS.

Tasked to plan for and respond to a catastrophic chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident in the homeland, JTF-CS deploys to the incident site and executes timely and effective command and control of designated Department of Defense forces, providing support to civil authorities.

JTF-CS and the DCRF provide a variety of life-saving and sustaining response capabilities focused around six core capabilities: mission command, identification and detection, search and extraction, decontamination, medical triage and stabilization, and medical evacuation.

Sudden Response tested the movement and capability of JTF-CS in terms of equipment and personnel during the initial phases of a simulated CBRN incident in the homeland. JTF-CS and the Defense CBRN Response Force, or “DCRF,” are called into action to assist in response operations in support of civil authorities.

Commands reacted to fictitious scenarios designed to test the unit’s ability to command and control military responders. The initial incident that resulted in JTF-CS’ activation was an anthrax contamination and mass casualty following a plane crash into a building in a U.S. city, followed by a hurricane and a local train derailment that resulted in a spill of industrial chemicals.

“You need to be ready to go out the door at any moment because you never know when you’re going to be called,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Craig Wilson, chief, Plans and Orders for JTF-CS. “The more you practice being ready for those operations doing exercises and training like this, the better prepared you’ll be if you’re called.”

Communication between command center staff and military lifesavers is important during a disaster, said West. Her team established communications within JTF-CS’ operations center, an area about the size of a basketball court, within hours, including installing meters-long antennas, satellite dishes and running cables. Without the communication technicians from the 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, one of dozens of supporting “enablers,” coordination between military forces, and the local, state and federal agencies would be impossible, according to West.

In other words, no communication means lifesaving is slowed or worse — not possible. To that end, JTF-CS tested how quickly it could respond once directed to deploy in support of a lead federal agency, including identifying any “friction points” in the process, including communications, logistics, planning and information management. The joint task force has spent months planning, rehearsing, practicing and refining its procedures to better respond in the event of a catastrophic CBRN incident in the homeland.

“It’s definitely a learning experience for the big picture, real world,” said U.S. Army Capt. Fernando Najera, liaison officer for the Fort Bragg based 44th Medical Brigade. “For a brigade, it’s definitely helping with the coordination piece because with every exercise you get better.”

The 44th Medical Bde. is one of the 88 units assigned to the DCRF mission. Military units throughout the U.S. are allocated for the response mission for one to two years, often in between deployments overseas.

“There are always things you can iron out for the next time,” said Army Lt. Col. Bryant Beebe, a planner with the Norfolk, Va.-based Joint Enabling Capabilities Command – a unit that provides “mission-tailored, joint capability packages to…facilitate the rapid establishment of Joint Force Headquarters,” according to the unit’s website.

“We’re definitely trying to identify those things and iron out the kinks,” Beebe said.