Recent missile launch alerts direct Fort Greely residents, workers to take shelter

A ground-based interceptor missile is placed into position at the Missile Defense Complex in Fort Greely near Fairbanks.
A ground-based interceptor missile is placed into position at the missile defense complex in Fort Greely near Fairbanks. (Still from public domain video by Petty Officer 2nd Class Aiyana Paschal/Defense Media Activity Forward Center – Pacific)

Fort Greely has declared five so-called “shelter in place” alerts over the past two weeks.

The alerts announced over loudspeakers advise people on the fort to stay indoors and take precautions to protect themselves from the toxic exhaust of interceptor missiles that would be launched from Greely in an attempt to knock down U.S.-bound enemy missiles.

Steve McCombs was out hiking last week in an area about 3 miles west of Fort Greely’s missile defense base, headed toward a couple of ponds he likes to fish in, when he heard a siren followed by an announcement blared out over the post’s loudspeaker system.

“I was walking in there and then started to hear these announcements, and then started to kind of get a little bit startled,” McCombs said in an interview Wednesday.

McCombs is a retired schoolteacher and state Division of Forestry dispatcher who lives in nearby Delta Junction. And he, like most people who live around Greely, has for years heard announcements over the post’s loud PA system that’s called “the Giant Voice.” But he said the announcement he heard on July 30 calling for people on post to take shelter was pretty unsettling.

“I figured there may have been something that happened with the North Koreans again,” McCombs said.

McCombs was referring to common knowledge among the locals that Greely’s security level is elevated whenever North Korea launches missiles. Post spokesperson Chris Maestas declined to confirm that and deferred to the Missile Defense Agency, which didn’t respond to queries.

Maestas said announcements went out five times over the past two weeks, twice each on July 24 and July 30 and again on Aug. 6. The alerts coincided with North Korean missile launches that weren’t part of an attack.

“The announcement is a shelter-in-place notification,” Maestas said, explaining that the alerts direct workers and resident to “go indoors, close windows or doors. If you’re in a vehicle, go ahead and roll up your windows. Turn off any intake fans or high-ventilation intake systems.”

Maestas said the precautions are intended to minimize the chances of human exposure to the toxic exhaust that’s blasted out of an interceptor’s solid-fuel booster upon launch. That’s not a problem when the interceptors take off from remote launch facilities, like the one at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where two interceptors were launched during a March 25 test.

Fort Greely officials distribute this pamphlet and others that advise people who live or work on post what to do when an interceptor missile is about to be launched. (Graphic courtesy of Fort Greely)

But Greely’s missile base is located about a half-mile from its residential area. And post officials say it may also be necessary to tape plastic over vents, windows, doors and electrical outlets and switches. And then hole up in a shelter-in-place room, like a bathroom, and close the door.

McCombs said as he was listening to the announcements, he wondered whether he too should try to find shelter — then realized he was way out on the trail, an hour away from his vehicle.

“Going out for a quiet day in the woods, and then you hear all this chatter that’s coming over the air … I started thinking, ‘Was this a drill?’” McCombs said. “And as it went on, I thought maybe something happened.”

As for everyday Greely residents, Maestas said those who live and work on post know what they’ve signed up for.

“I think when you take a job here, being assigned to Fort Greely, whether you’re a soldier, civilian, family or tenant, you really understand the importance of the mission being conducted here,” Maestas said. “It’s all about ballistic missile defense of the United States.”

According to Maestas, the length of the five recent shelter-in-place alerts lasted from 5 to 25 minutes each.

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