Bloggers Note: With few exceptions, the public is unaware of the planning intensity involved in producing a suitable, feasible, and operational emergency response plan—or Homeland Security plan if you will; or the poor state of readiness that exists when planners lack intesity. In this post, I take the reader behind the scenes of drafting the California National Guard’s Pandemic (worldwide) Influenza Response Plan in 2009-2010 and reveal how the leadership, and character, of one man influenced a Pandemic Influenza (H1N1) response planning process in which taxpayers got their monies worth, and in which they can be confident if an H1N1 Outbreak occurs. I describe Col William Bill Hatch’s “Pounding Room” and how it:
- Functioned in a hostile political and work environment;
- Generated intensive research and analysis; and
- Prepared Planning facilitators to guide planning staffs through worst case war gaming scenarios;
I conclude by advocating an Ebola Response Plan using the principles, work ethics, commitment, and drive Hatch modeled in directing the California National Guard’s Pandemic Influenza planning efforts.
State of Preparedness
Public confidence appears non-existent with California’s Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) preparedness, an uncertainty that arguably didn’t exist under the state’s 2009 Pandemic Influenza (PI) plan—a product influenced from the confines of the infamous “pounding room.”
The California Kaiser Nurses strike to bring attention to the dangers nurses face dealing with Ebola, the pending deployment of members of the California National Guard’s 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion to West Africa for Operation United Assistance (OUA) to assist the deadly Ebola outbreak, and state conference calls, hotlines, and conferences to calm public anxieties are all evidence that the Ebola fear has come to California. It also appears that state authorities are in a “reactive” rather than a “proactive” state of readiness in the event of an Ebola outbreak in California.
The Pounding Room
The pounding room was a briefing room where Col. William “Bill Hatch” faced off against his subordinate planning facilitator to: anticipate public questions; scheme courses of action (COAs); and hash out criteria to analyze COAs as part of working guidelines for the PI Joint Planning Group (JPG) that met weekly at the Joint Force Headquarters in Sacramento, CA. The end state was to bring the PI JPG’s fifteen members to a consensus on a PI response plan, draft it, validate it with the California Military Department’s headquarters directorates, and have the concurrence of the division’s four Military Divisions–Army Guard; Air Guard; Joint; and State Military Reserve (SMR).
The pounding room derived its nick name from stories Hatch shared with us about his own planning experiences while on active duty in Korea. As a member of a planning staff, he recounted the pride of authorship he felt about the plans he briefed to his commanding officer in a briefing room. The commander not only challenged the details of his planning, but shredded the plans sending Hatch away to revise and brief it continuously until it was right. Hatch and his peers affectionately called it “the pounding room.”
Although the stories were humorous, Hatch gave us the opportunity to share similar–or perhaps his delayed–pain. Each week I religiously prepared working group outlines for the JPG, and each week I was sent away to revise–meeting with Hatch at least twice weekly prior the weekly scheduled JPG working meeting. I was not alone–Hatch’s three other planning facilitators–each working on other response plans–shared the joy. But then again, the JPG–with 15 subject matter experts (SME) requires detailed work outlines to negotiate the laborious processes of war gaming, validating, and drafting a detailed Pandemic Influenza (PI) plan. A plan that inspires public confidence and faith in a California National Guard response capable of: withstanding the initial onslaught of an epidemic; flexible enough to adjust to the twists and turns a contingency mission can take as an emergency unfolds; and farsighted enough to prevent its expansion into a major catastrophe.
“When activated for an emergency, I want people knowing what to do, not asking what to do,” Hatch often said.
The Political Pressure
Hatch became the California National Guard’s Operational Planning Group (OPG) Branch Chief in the midst of what, many believe, was a generational battle amongst the state’s officer corps. A generational gap, some argue, that former Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Paul D. Monroe attempted to repair by hiring retiring active duty colonels, such as Hatch, to mentor and groom a corps of talented and skilled young officers for future senior leadership. Monroe was rumored to have believed in one of his predecessor’s—Maj. Gen. Robert Thrasher—mentoring philosophy of pairing promising young officers with senior officers to coach them for future senior leadership positions.
The cycle eventually broke down early in the 21st Century as senior officers prematurely retired, moved into the private sector, transferred to the Army Reserves, or transitioned to higher levels within the active components. A younger, aggressive, age group disputably filled the generational vacuum through politically expedient means. It’s the perception of many that a core group of young officers that congregated at 3:00 p.m. daily to smoke cigars at the state headquarters’ patio from 2005 through 2012 was the “inner circle”–underground, so to speak–that eventually rose to the top. They arguably plotted the demise of “political undesirables,” and dubiously manufactured scandals that smeared the State Military Department with the label, “most investigated state agency” in California government. They debatably calculated the overthrow of three adjutant generals while elevating themselves to senior levels of command around a craftily orchestrated communications theme: “Mandate to Clean up the Guard.”
Hatch: The Midas’ Touch
Hatch’s transfer to the state headquarters from Camp San Luis Obispo, many believe, was allegedly an inner circle ploy to force his resignation from the State Active Duty (SAD) system. A competent leader, Hatch’s reputation among the Guard’s rank and file was the man with “the Golden Touch.” He commanded both Camp Roberts and Camp San Luis Obispo bringing both above Army installation operational standards. Unwittingly, he became a threat when the “inner circle” purportedly feared civilian political leaders might recognize his “Midas touch” and advocate his appointment to Adjutant General.
By 2009, this inner circle reportedly held positions of the power from which they could force Hatch out with an ultimatum: accept a SAD demotion from Colonel, to rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and take charge of state military department’s Operational Planning Group (OPG); or retire. The California National Guard is the only National Guard in the country with a full-time SAD System—all others authorize SAD only when activated for state emergencies. The ultimatum came with additional caveat–no compensation for permanent change in station (PCS) that active duty personnel are entitled when relocating geographically—which California state law arguably requires the SAD to mirror. The inner circle purportedly rationalized that Hatch was one of Monroe’s “political cronies,”–a product of nepotism justifying weeding him out of the SAD system. Surely, they were reported to believe, Hatch would opt to retire instead of accept demotion and relocation at his personal costs.
To everyone’s surprise, Hatch accepted. The Texas native and West Point alumnus became a geographic bachelor, commuting 270-milies to Sacramento during the week, and returning to San Luis Obispo on the weekends for his family. The career officer honored his commitment to Monroe to mentor the Guard’s emerging leaders—both those subordinate to him and those harassing him. I would become very familiar with this mentoring integrity through the pounding room. A room that would add to the Hatch legacy as the “leader with the Golden touch,” and with a knack saving and maximizing California taxpayers’ dollars.
Nightmares Emanating from the Pounding Room
I found myself not only receiving Hatch’s guidance, but having to keep pace with the avid reader and athlete. Every morning would begin with, “I ran five miles this morning,” How far did you run?” Followed by comments such as, “I just finished The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History [by John M. Barry], you should read it.” He persistently emailed me links to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Website, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), and numerous other networks to read and study to prepare for the pounding room–that pressure cooker that would eventually brew dreams—or nightmares—during my off-duty hours.
Often, I would dream of a debilitating H1N1 outbreak in California. I would feel my apparition floating above the JOC, its big wall screens projecting a common operating picture (COP) of an H1N1 invasion of California. I would envision an operational plan (OPLAN) becoming an Operational Order (OPORD) with sufficient information to trigger two 1,000-person Joint task forces–one in Northern and the other in Southern California–to support the CDHP and the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA) with missions to protect strategic stockpiles of vaccines and medicines, distribution points, and military transportation units activated to transport vaccinations, medical equipment, and life-sustaining supplies.
In these sleeping stupors, I felt as if I were having “out of body experiences” hovering above troops mustering for vaccinations, cargo trucks rolling out with personal protective equipment (PPE) for these troops, and operational legal staff convening to issue guidelines consistent with the Pose Committals Act for Guardsmen to assist with quarantines. I would imagine military engineers altering quarantine facilities to segregate gravely ill H1N1 patients from the general population, and military police escorting Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA) convoys to protect the transport of food, and water to distribution points, grocery stores, and hospitals. Dreams of the worst case scenarios, haunted by Hatch’s dogma, “I want people knowing what to do, not asking what they need to do.”
War Gaming the Pounding Room Nightmares
Only dreams—or perhaps nightmares—conjured up from Hatch’s bullying in the pounding room. A room where the drive for perfection resulted in the capture of excellence as nightmares morphed into courses of action (COA). COAs for the PI JPG to play out, scheme, test, re-test, and revise during weekly planning sessions.
A pursuit for excellence that transformed a bureaucratic 15-page checklist originally submitted to the state, into more than a hundred pages of information that the state headquarters joint staff, mobilized JTFs Commanders and their staffs could “data mine” to organize and respond to a Pandemic Influenza inside California. Details empowering a Joint Task Force Headquarters staff and subordinate task forces to roll with the branches and sequels of an flu emergency to prevent it from expanding into a catastrophe that could cost citizen’s lives, and cripple the state economically and socially for years to come.
War Gaming that produced systems for tracking the H1N1—that Hatach wanted to use for the Department’s weekly Headquarters Update Brief (HUB), for senior leadership and directors. A request the inner circle arguably refused for fear that politicians would discover the man with the “Golden Touch” and advocate his appointment to the adjutant generalcy of the California National Guard.
A plan so detailed that even the command’s surgeon general and Chaplains–often overlooked during planning–had prominent roles. Hatch pushed to create a “joint Staff Surgeon” and “joint Chaplain” in the plan’s organizational annex. Positions critical for initiating a force health protection (FHP) plan that educated leaders on office sanitary protocols, mandated annual flu shots, and modified sick leave policies to ensure troops showing flu symptoms stayed home as a precaution to preserve a response force and essential operations for an H1N1 response.
The plan included spiritual and psychological force protection, as well, ensuring critical incident stress management (CISM) plans were in place so Chaplains were activated to counsel forces that may witness the stacking of dead bodies as the massive deaths might occur during an epidemic, or support support civilian authorities with eulogies for 15 minute funerals as was the case with the 1918 Spanish Influenza. Plans that included counseling of families of deployed forces to limit distractions to activated Guardsmen. All dreams materializing from the pounding room where Hatch pressured his facilitators to match plans with worst case scenarios to produce plans so solid, and response so rapid, that the nightmare never transpires.
“Hatch, a Certain Magic Still Lingers in the Very Name
Among the Guard’s rank and file of the time, Hatch was an icon similar to legendary Green Bay Packer Coach Vince Lombardi. One could almost hear the voice of National Football League (NFL) films narrator John Facenda saying “Lombardi, a certain magic still lingers in the very name,” but substituting Hatch for Lombardi. Many California National Guard leaders revere Lombardi and have his picture and speech, “What it takes to be Number One,” hanging on their office walls. Hatch, however, is one of the few who actually strove, and pushed his staff to be “number one.” If the California National Guard had a history unit, then surely Hatch would the it’s Vince Lombardi, and from its archives, Ebola planners could perhaps take the following basics to for designing response plan in which the Public can be confident:
- Force Health Protection— There are no Federal Drug Administration (FDA)
-approved vaccines or therapeutics available for prevention, post-exposure, or treatment for Ebola virus infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The West Africa epidemic, however, has increased the demand for both a vaccine and treatments. The Nation disputably has a credibility issue with the military for vaccines and diseases for military personnel. Agent Orange, the Gulf War Syndrome, and the Anthrax vaccination controversy are all cases where military personnel volunteered willingly, but includes many cases where the Pentagon medically discharged them from the service, and the Veterans Administration (VA) denied them treatment because they couldn’t find a link between the illness and deployment mission. Consequently, many military families lost income and benefits. With 223rd’s MI Bn pending deployment, and health care volunteers rotating through West Africa, it’s in the state’s best interests for its elected leaders to lobby Congress and federal government to guarantee full medical coverage and employment in the event any become ill–regardless of whether a clear nexus exists between their Ebola mission service and deployment.
- Civilian Leadership—Matthew Bettenhausen, who was in charge of Cal EMA (since re-designated as Office of Emergency Services) during the time Hatch was pushing for a comprehensive PI plan. In my dealings with Bettenhausen, it was obvious to me that he was proactive. Office of Emergency Services (OES) Director Mark Ghilarducci, on the other hand, impressed me as having a “reactive” style of leadership in my interactions with him. A Google search of California’s Office of Emergency Services lends credence to this observation finding no documentation of a functional Ebola epidemic response plan on either the OES’ or CDPH’s shelf. Ebola is only referenced in the state plan for a biological attack. It’s in the public’s interest for CDPH/OES to either draft an Ebola plan, or siphon off Homeland Security Grant funding to contract planners to draft it for them.
- Response Triggers—Hatch’s genius was not so much as a visionary, but as a leader who could inspire his subordinates to unleash their imagination and creativity. History, weekly analysis of CDPH reports monitoring H1N1 trends in California, and the integration of the Center for Disease Control’s Pandemic Influenza Severity Index helped us create a “Common Operating Picture” (COP) from which we could anticipate sequels, or the next logical outcome, of an emerging epidemic. The 1918 Spanish Influenza reveals the potential lethality of an H1N1. That Pandemic killed more people than were killed the first world war–600,000 Americans alone. U.S. Life expectancy dropped by 10 years; a shortage of health caregivers occurred; the country suffered lost of wages and capital as many fell ill; and the influenza swept the country in waves–originating at Ft. Riley, Kansas, spreading to other military installations, and the general population–restricting U.S. travel and sacrificing precious civil liberties. It’s perhaps arrogant to dismiss public concern on the presumption that an Ebola epidemic/pandemic risk is minimal. Having a plan in place, however, with a COP from which state and military leaders can identify decision points–or triggers– for initiating FHPs; inventorying and staging PPE; vaccinations if available; and alerting forces and first line responders–could calm public fears and conceivably prevent an Ebola nightmare.
Some claim they could hear yelling coming from pounding room; but if one listened closely, it was clear that it was only perceived yelling. The real words were in Hatch’s passion for commitment, perhaps embodied in Gen. Douglas MacAthur’s Duty, Honor, Country Speech before West Point Cadets in 1961: “The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and, I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule. But these are some of the things they do. They build your basic character. They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the Nation’s defense. They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid. “
At the current time, the State of California’s Ebola actions are debatably “words, slogans, and flamboyant phrases” slung around by a disputably reactive government under an illusion that “words mean something.” With a dose of commitment, a dash of character, a prescription of “duty, honor, country,” and proactive leadership to mold planners and operators for their future roles–such as that exemplified by Hatch–maybe the State can upgrade these words into a deliberate Ebola plan in which the public can be confident.
Having an intense pounding room might help–a place planners would find uncomfortable, but a place where planners can wake Californians from a real-life Ebola nightmare.