Interview with Mr. Michael Collins


Deputy Commander, Joint Task Force-Civil Support, USA

Mr. Michael A. Collins joined JTF-CS as the Chief of Staff in August 2006 as a U.S. Navy Captain, then transitioned to a Department of the U.S. Air Force civilian. In March 2015, Mr. Collins was assigned as the Deputy to the Commander. Headquartered at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Va., JTF-CS is assigned to U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and is focused on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) consequence management planning, preparedness and command and control of Department of Defense (DOD) forces during CBRN incidents.

Collins graduated from Loyola University of New Orleans in 1981 with a degree in Computer Science, and received his commission from Tulane University NROTC. He received his wings as a Naval Flight Officer in July 1982 and subsequently completed training in the EA-6B Prowler aircraft at VAQ-129, the EA-6B Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS). His command tours include VAQ-140, VAQ-129, Naval Support Activity, Norfolk, VA, and Regional Support Services for the Mid-Atlantic Region. Collins retired from the Navy in August 2010.

You have spent a large part of your career serving in the US Navy, what do you bring of that experience in your current position, serving all US services, and what do you wish you knew then?

That’s an interesting question, because before I came into this job and this organization, I had little to no CBRN experience. Like the majority of personnel in the U.S. military I had been taught how to don my protective mask and my JSLIST protective suit if required, but that was the extent of my training.

However on the operational side, I spent 5 months in 1990 and 1991 working for the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. That was an amazing learning experience where I got to participate in the allocation and assignment of forces from most branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and then participated in the assignment of missions to these forces. That experience has been invaluable to me here at JTF-CS where we work with allocated forces from all branches of the U.S. military.

What are the most challenging CBRN response operations that you have witnessed in your time in the JTF-CS and how does JTF-CS prepares for future threats?

JTF-CS will celebrate its 20th anniversary this coming October. Most people assume the command was stood up as a result of the 9/11 attacks. But in the wake of the Sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995, the terrorist bombings at Khobar Towers in 1996, and the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Nairobi in 1998, in 1999 the President directed the Department of Defense (DOD) to stand up a military organization to assist our federal government civilian partners in the case of a CBRN incident, whether accidental like Bhopal, India or intentional, like a weapon of mass destruction.

JTF-CS has never deployed as a headquarters to a CBRN event, and we hope that we never have to. But getting back to your question, we sent a team of approximately 12 personnel to provide subject matter expertise on radiation to US Forces, Japan in the wake to the 2011 tsunami and subsequent reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. Additionally the U.S. sent one Immediate Response Force (IRF) to Japan from the U.S Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) to assist with training and if needed, the decontamination of personnel.

While JTF-CS and the Defense CBRN Response Force (DCRF) are focused on responding to a CBRN incident, we inherently have the skills to respond to an all-hazard event if needed. In 2012, JTF-CS deployed for 30 days to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in its support to the states of New York and New Jersey and their affected citizens after Superstorm Sandy. While this response was not due to a CBRN event, it had some similarities. There was substantial infrastructure damage in both states. Thousands of people were left homeless and required food, water and temporary shelter. Many of the tunnels, streets and entire neighborhoods were flooded and required dewatering. Thankfully there was no CBRN component to the event. But this deployment, as unfortunate as it was for the affected citizens, provided a superb opportunity for us to practice our deployment process and to operate inside the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the same system we would use when responding to a CBRN incident.

In a domestic setting, JTF-CS supports the response to emergencies with civilian authorities, but what are some challenges in coordinating with them and what can you learn from the civil sector and vice-versa?

I wouldn’t say it’s challenging to work with civilian authorities. We may do things differently in the military than they do on the civilian side of the federal government, but we’re all there to help the people affected by the disaster. And we all remain singularly focused on that objective which helps us work together.

Having said that, we spend a significant amount of effort in our headquarters training on NIMS, the National Response Framework (NRF) and the Incident Command System (ICS). These are some of the documents that guide how cities, states, and FEMA respond to disasters in the U.S. Personnel in our headquarters are trained on these systems very early on after joining the command, and we train on them during exercises with civilian experts at least twice per year.

What is a challenge is the annual turnover of military units that comprise our response forces in the DCRF. When the DCRF was created in 2010, the U.S. government did not add additional force structure to the DOD. Instead we took existing military units like, Army Chemical Companies, Army Area Support Medical Companies (ASMC – Role II medical support), and Air Force Expeditionary Medical Support (Role III medical support) and put them on the CBRN Response mission for one year. After their year on mission, they rotate back into their normal military responsibilities. But this means that every year, the DOD and JTF-CS have to train these units to operate inside the civilian disaster response system. This takes a great deal of effort.

It’s important to note, that we are a military organization, and as such we have a military chain of command, and our units execute missions (Tech rescue, Decon, Medical triage and stabilization to name a few) under military orders thru the chain of command. However the capabilities that we provide have been requested by FEMA or whichever organization is the lead federal agency (LFA) in the disaster, so we operate inside the Incident Command Structure (ICS) led by civilian responders. Ensuring all JTF-CS and DCRF leaders understand how our civilian partners operate so we can integrate into their overall response effort is critical to the successful execution of each mission we’re sent out on.

The JTF-CS covers not only the mainland US territory, but Canada and Mexico as well, among other areas. In your opinion, what do you think the JTF-CS can do more to foster quantity and quality when cooperating with its international partners?

I think there are several areas the U.S. and our international partners can make more progress in coordinating a CBRN Response. The U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas all have their own CBRN Response plans, but it would certainly help to spend more time studying each other’s plans to fully understand each nation’s approach to CBRN response. Additionally, we need to understand what response capabilities we each bring to the incident and the timelines they move under, so the nation conducting the response effort can plan for the timely employment of assistance from the other nations.

We conduct a great deal of cross border combined training with our international partners focused on warfighting. But we need to increase the amount of training we do together for a CBRN Response. When people mention training, I instinctively think about moving forces from one location to another, or in this case from one country to another, in order to conduct combined training in the same location. But there are other ways to conduct training. The simplest is just to run a tabletop exercise (TTX) where we bring experts together from each country and work our way through each of the issues we may encounter in a CBRN response. U.S. Northern Command does exactly this every June at their headquarters in Colorado Springs. Additionally, we need to establish policies on medicines used in one country but not the other, credentialing of physicians in another country, cross border movement, and what the command structure will be while operating in another country just to name a few.

Other potential training venues include command post exercises (CPXs) where we bring just the headquarters personnel together and we can practice the response effort without actually moving large numbers military personnel across the borders. But I think the gold standard would be to bring response forces together with their headquarters and to train side by side so that we really understand each other’s capabilities.

If you could speak to all CBRNe industry leaders what would you ask from them to make your job in the JTF-CS easier?

This is difficult to answer because as one individual I don’t feel like I can speak for the entire U.S. CBRN Response Enterprise (CRE). However, there are areas we see in training that we wish we could improve. For example Title 10 (federal military personnel) use different decontamination equipment than the National Guard uses. Standardization of equipment would help. One of our concerns is if we have to do CBRN Response, would we be expected to replace a unit already on a mission with our personnel using the other unit’s equipment. Even if the major components of the equipment are different, making the controls similar would help the turnover of a mission in progress.

Reliability and age of equipment can sometimes be an issue. This mission is not a standard mission for the military units who serve in the DCRF during their year on mission. And as such, they don’t train on it fulltime. They have additional responsibilities, whether it’s training for their warfighting mission or performing duties on behalf of the installation where they’re based. But when it is time to train, and the equipment is taken out its storage containers, it doesn’t always function. More reliable and more durable equipment would be a big help. Remember, this equipment may travel hundreds or thousands of miles inside storage containers before it’s employed.

In closing, I want to thank you for allowing me to provide some insight on JTF-CS and the Defense CBRN Response Force (DCRF). I looking forward to speaking at NCT USA next week, and all opinions expressed here are mine alone.

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