Va. Guard Joint, Air Staff conduct COOP exercise at Fort Pickett

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Soldiers and Airmen of the Virginia National Guard Joint Staff and Air Staff from Joint Force Headquarters – Virginia conduct a continuity of operations plan exercise April 10, 2014, at Fort Pickett. During the three-day exercise, all staff functions performed at the Mullins Readiness Center in Sandston were transferred to a designated location at Fort Pickett. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

FORT PICKETT, Va. – More than 100 members of the Virginia Guard’s Sandston-based Joint Force Headquarters participated in a continuity of operations, or COOP, exercise at Fort Pickett, Va., April 10-13.

The purpose of the exercise, said deputy plans officer Lt. Col. Douglas Gagnon, was to test the headquarters’ ability to relocate to an alternate location and still perform the critical capabilities of commanding and controlling subordinates units, conducting staff coordination, generating a common operational picture and interfacing with state and national headquarters.

In the exercise, a fictitious chemical accident in the vicinity of Sandston triggered evacuation of the Virginia Guard’s Mullins Readiness Center, where the Department of Military Affairs and JFHQ normally operate, to barracks at Fort Pickett’s Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center, more than an hour’s drive away.

The exercise successfully demonstrated that the required communications infrastructure and facilities were available at Fort Pickett for Virginia Guard leaders and staff sections to continue operations in the event facilities in Sandston were not available. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

The exercise successfully demonstrated that the required communications infrastructure and facilities were available at Fort Pickett for Virginia Guard leaders and staff sections to continue operations in the event facilities in Sandston were not available. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

“Every section was able to move here and function,” said Gagnon, who drafted the COOP plan. “There are always going to be issues that crop up,” he added, citing the number of electrical drops as an example and noting that participating service members and civilians were able to easily overcome such obstacles and improvise solutions that worked well throughout the exercise.

“I’m excited about having been able to do this and see that we can physically get down here and set up and get started with our operations,” said Col. James Zollar, director of joint operations for the Virginia Guard. Counterparts in other states were eager to hear the lessons learned from Virginia, said Zollar, since many of them have not yet physically exercised their COOP plans—only scouted locations and verified infrastructure requirements, as the Virginia Guard did during last year’s COOP exercise.

Lessons learned during these exercises are incorporated into an annually updated COOP plan that the JFHQ plans section submits to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said Gagnon.

While the majority of participants in this year’s exercise were Army National Guard Soldiers, around 15 members of the Air National Guard participated as well, in their collective capacity as the air staff.

“The exercise was very smooth and confirmed that everyone was able to access what they needed to perform mission essential functions if an event occurred and we were in a COOP status,” said Lt. Col. Jason C. Black, air staff plans officer. “We were able to quickly execute and identify any shortfalls, which were minimal.”

A federal government initiative, required by presidential directive, COOP ensures that agencies are able to continue performance of essential functions under a broad range of circumstances, including terrorist attacks like those of 9/11 and natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes. Many states, like the Commonwealth of Virginia, also require that their agencies maintain annually updated COOP plans, although, as Zollar noted, it is rare for other agencies to fully relocate their headquarters as the JFHQ did for this exercise.

“I’m really proud of how everyone performed,” said Col. Paul Griffin, chief of the joint staff. “The Adjutant General’s vision for the Virginia Guard calls for a force that is ready, relevant, and rapidly responding, and the success of this exercise proves that we are. In the event of a real-world emergency, there’s no doubt in my mind that our headquarters could rapidly relocate and continue with our mission of protecting the citizens of the commonwealth.”

Photos: Va. Guard Jointand Air Staff conduct COOP exercise – April 10, 2014