When the Plan Changes
1ST LT. CHARLES AVIS
505th Engineer Battalion
North Carolina Army National Guard
Gastonia, North Carolina
In the fall of 2018, Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina. As the state’s major engineer battalion, we are often called to help in times of emergency, and my platoon was tasked with road clearance. During the entire two weeks of orders, we traveled from our home station in Lexington, to the mountains in Asheville and all the way to Elizabeth City via military 10-ton dump trucks and Light Medium Tactical Vehicles (LMTVs) that sat three Soldiers. At the end of the two weeks, we were all exhausted. Then, part of my platoon was asked to do a follow-on mission to Elizabeth City, as the coast was especially hard hit and in need of further support.
The fragmentary order (FRAGO) was issued at 1200 and we had a suspense time of 2100 to reach Elizabeth City. In a private motor vehicle, that is a four-and-a-half-hour trip; in military vehicles, with rest stops and refuels, the trip pushes six hours. After receiving the FRAGO, my senior NCO and I conducted a map reconnaissance while the rest of the team prepped and conducted preventive maintenance checks and services (PMCS) on the vehicles. During our planning, my NCO and I determined we would not make it to the armory before nightfall. Because we were headed into a flooded area with unknown road conditions, we planned to incorporate an extra vehicle length between our vehicles during the movement and to stay 5 mph under the speed limit after sunset.
We moved out shortly before 1400. Since I was most familiar with the area we were traveling, I was in the lead vehicle and my senior NCO was in the rear. The convoy began smoothly. There was little traffic in the direction we were headed and we made it to our first rest point a few minutes ahead of schedule. Once we started the second leg of the route, I could tell fatigue was starting to set in with some of the guys. We made it to the second stop on our route and refueled the vehicles. It was about an hour from sunset at this point and we still had a minimum of two-and-a-half hours remaining. I gave the guys an extra 15 minutes to stretch and shifted the drivers so we had a fresh Soldier operating each vehicle. I briefed the new drivers about the remainder of the route and gave them the safety measures the senior NCO and I had put in place. Once back on the road, everything went smoothly for the next hour.
About 60 miles from our destination, we ran into our first obstacle. A bridge ahead had been compromised and was shut down earlier that day, so we had to find an alternate route. We pulled into a parking lot, where I did a quick map reconnaissance with the information local law enforcement gave me about the area and road closures. I found a detour, but it would add an hour to our drive. I then radioed headquarters to let them know about the road closures and detours because more units were supposed to be coming behind us. I also let my point of contact know our updated time of arrival.
It was beginning to get dark when we got on the road again. Fortunately, the sun was setting behind us, so our visibility was not hindered. As we neared Elizabeth City, we began seeing some of the heavier damage left by Hurricane Florence, including downed trees, fields entirely underwater and debris covering the roads. The time was approaching 2000, the sun had fully set and we were now traveling along two-lane back country roads without streetlights.
I instructed the convoy to drive in the middle of the road and for my vehicle to keep on its bright lights. The convoy dropped its speed and increased the following distance. Not 30 minutes later, we reached a low part of the road. Suddenly, my vehicle felt like it hit a wall, and water covered the windshield. I radioed for the vehicles behind me to halt. My vehicle made it through the water with no issues, so I let the rest of the convoy know it is safe to cross but to do it one at a time and slowly.
As it turned out, the low spot in the road was close to a stream that had flooded the area. There was about 3 feet of water on the road, but with it being pitch black and in a low spot between two hills, we didn’t see it until the last minute. Luckily, all of the passengers in my vehicle were wearing their proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and seat belts. My driver and I sustained minor bruises on our upper chests where the straps of our seat belts caught us. By adding in the additional spacing between the vehicles and slower speeds, we were able to avoid any convoy collisions or the need for evasive maneuvers, which could have proved fatal.
There were a lot of risk factors that could have spelled disaster for this convoy, including fatigue, time of day, vehicle speed, convoy spacing, environmental hazards and lack of situational awareness. Thanks to good planning and risk analysis, my platoon took extra precautions against the added hazards. Proper PMCS, map reconnaissance, multiple rest stops, swapping drivers, PPE, safety briefs and real-time risk management allowed everyone to make it to our destination safely.
The dynamic or changing nature of a mission or the environment may require leaders to make immediate risk decisions. Real-time risk management is the process used to make risk decisions when there is inadequate planning time or when mission or environmental changes demand immediate decisions by leaders executing the mission. There may not be time to make a deliberate application of the risk management process; instead, leaders will implement real-time risk assessments. The vital information and control measures must then be communicated to the Soldiers performing the operation.