What The Division gets right (and wrong) about disaster response

The Division's right-- when the US experiences a major disaster, the military can show up to help respond. Unlike in The Division, however, they're usually not there to shoot people or enforce the law.

When it launched, we discussed how The Division misrepresents the civilian side of a disaster — casting the most vulnerable groups as its villains. But not everything in the game is so off-key. In fact, though it’s hardly a model of responsible disaster management, the game does include some truth about how the U.S. government responds to crisis situations. From the mess of federal agencies to base-building and real FEMA markings, you can learn a lot from how The Division reflects, and distorts, real themes in disaster response.

Military Responders — More Specialists Than Killers

One criticism of The Division has been the titular Division itself — an irregular stay-behind force with dubious constitutional justification and skills that aren’t particularly helpful in a disaster area. In fact, they have little resemblance to the actual National Guard and active duty forces sent in after a hurricane or earthquake.

Instead, player-controlled teams in The Division resemble Long Range Recon Patrols (LRRPs), a type of irregular commando unit trained to operate deep in enemy territory. These teams came into their own during the Vietnam War, when LRRPs would insert into hostile territory via helicopter and disappear for days, monitoring enemy movements, staging ambushes, and harassing supply lines. Much like Division agents, LRRPs often wore customized uniforms and used captured enemy weapons.

A LRRP in Vietnam in 1968. A LRRP in Vietnam in 1968.

The teams also had an advanced gadget, one much more powerful than a gun turret or seeker mine — a radio to call in artillery, airstrikes, and helicopter gunships. This one-two combination of stealth and heavy artillery made the teams particularly deadly, but their high kill ratio (by one estimate, 400 enemy dead for every LRRP KIA) also meant commanders used them as indiscriminate problem-solvers. By the end of the war, LRRPs were getting every random, tough mission that came down the pipe, from searching for downed pilots to clearing landing zones. In other words, LRRPs did whatever the Army needed, whether it was in their job description or not. Random missions with little preparation? Division agents would, no doubt, sympathize.

But LRRPs are not the soldiers you’d send into a disaster zone — for that you’d need a Regional Support Group.

A Regional Support Group (RSG) is a brigade-size collection of units tasked with a specific mission. RSG 10 in Okinawa provides logistics support for the Pacific region, for instance, but others are closer to home. Multiple Regional Support Groups exist on American soil, with each falling into a FEMA-designated response zone. Should a hurricane ravage the Eastern Seaboard or an earthquake rattle Los Angeles, the National Guardsmen and active duty military in that RSG grab their go-bags and deploy to the affected area within 24 hours.

These brigade-sized Regional Support Groups are less riflemen than they are specialists. Their assets usually include engineering, transportation, and medical companies, a communications squad, and technicians to deal with explosive, nuclear, biological, and chemical threats. They have two battalions of military police for security work and an Air Force airlift wing to deliver them to the area and keep supplies coming.

In other words, they have all the stuff local governments tend to fall short on in times of crisis — helicopters for search and rescue, medical teams, earthmoving equipment, and specialists who can screen damaged reactors or chemical plants. It’s more troubleshooting than actual shooting.

Don’t Put Your Base of Operations in a Post Office

However, one thing The Division gets right about disaster response is the order of priorities: the moment military responders arrive, they build a base of operations.

The U.S.S. Bataan assisted Katrina victims with rescue operations and supplies. The U.S.S. Bataan assisted Katrina victims with rescue operations and supplies.

While The Division sets this base in the James Farley Post Office, in reality Regional Support Groups build their bases around airstrips. Airports and airbases provide everything the military needs for a base: open space, a direct line on resupply, fuel facilities, and a launch site for helicopter squadrons. They’re also built with security in mind, so it’s easy for the MP battalions to secure the area and prevent supply theft. An aircraft carrier can also do the job, though that’s more common overseas.

A Regional Support Group can create a base within 12-24 hours after landing, constructing medical facilities, administration buildings, and sleeping quarters out of modular components. Any extra time goes toward prepping to receive casualties.

The Division does have a more traditional disaster response base — Camp Hudson, the player’s embarkation point to the city — but the game spends comparably little time there. Still, the game does emphasize the importance of building a base first thing, and stresses its important role as a coordination center for response groups. That’s both accurate and perceptive — outsiders often downplay how difficult command and control are during a response, and despite its simplicity, The Division’s base-building section highlights how crucial it is to establish a communications center first thing. Before you can respond, you need to get everyone on the same page.

That’s important, because just like in reality, The Division has a lot of groups to keep track of.

The Alphabet Soup of Response Agencies

In The Division, agents fight alongside the Joint Task Force (JTF) — a nebulously defined umbrella group consisting of military units, intelligence agents, local police, public works employees, and doctors. This confusing bureaucratic slurry addresses a host of disparate problems — and that’s pretty realistic.

A National Guardsman involved in helicopter relief efforts. The National Guard were one of many agencies responding to Katrina. A National Guardsman involved in helicopter relief efforts. The National Guard were one of many agencies responding to Katrina.

In the past military operations were largely a soldier’s domain, but modern conflicts often include representatives from multiple federal agencies, local police and military, contractors, medical teams, and NGOs like the Red Cross/Red Crescent. These task forces can be unruly collections of interests, but they’re also necessary to the mission — particularly when you’re trying to provide relief, win over local populations, or quell a disease outbreak. In these situations, soldiers might work alongside USAID, or State Department employees looking for missing citizens. And of course, in counterinsurgency efforts the local police and military play a key role, ideally shouldering more security duties than coalition troops.

For responses inside the United States, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) theoretically has overall control, but with so many different organizations taking part — from state and city authorities, to hospitals, to federal and military officials — the chain of command can get chaotic. FEMA’s response during Hurricane Katrina highlighted many of these issues, when the scattered collection of responders had difficulty coordinating, divvying up responsibilities, sharing resources, and adapting their plan to changing circumstances. Talk to almost any member of the military about the response, and the word “clusterfuck” almost always comes up. It is, to put it mildly, challenging to command this sort of response even when local communications infrastructure hasn’t been torn to shreds.

This is one aspect that The Division gets pretty spot-on. Though they’ve switched out FEMA for CERA (the Catastrophic Emergency Response Agency — probably a lawsuit dodge like the NYFD logos), the Joint Task Force also consists of U.S. troops, medical staff, local police, and city utility workers who coordinate in order to address the disaster on multiple fronts. While there are a lot of details about this coordination that don’t reflect reality, the overall impression the game gives is accurate. In a response there are multiple forces under a single umbrella, often competing for resources and attention (read: upgrade points), but all with the end goal of saving as many people as possible.

The Division also offers hints about the chaos and mismanagement that can happen during the initial response. Abandoned police, fire, and CERA vehicles litter the city, testament to the first failed attempt to control the outbreak. Missing Agent documents and cell phone calls chart the total failure of the first attempts at responding, with everything from agents deserting to the city’s sanitation workers splitting off into their own faction.

And while I’ve criticized the game’s treatment of the Cleaners, there’s a grain of truth in the idea of city workers coming into conflict with military troops. That happens. State and federal officials have a tendency to clash during these operations — but the conflict’s bureaucratic rather than violent. After all, it’s hard for local workers to suddenly do their jobs alongside federal authorities who might not know the intricacies of their city — which is why military responders try to interfere as little as possible.

Keep Shooting — Let the NPCs Handle Infrastructure

But while The Division understands the pattern of multi-agency response, it misrepresents the roles of the different players. As previously mentioned, military units deploy in disaster zones mostly in specialist roles, to augment existing forces and fill gaps in equipment, training, and manpower. What they don’t do is replace or supersede local efforts.

The game gets this broadly right when it comes to the “Medical” and “Tech” wings of the base. Except for collecting samples and securing utilities, the nitty-gritty business of running the medical and infrastructure response remains an NPC problem. Sure, you’re bringing in supplies to upgrade the tech and medical wings, but other characters actually build the generators and staff the surgical wards. That’s accurate. If city hospitals remain online after a disaster, they become the main casualty collection points and treatment centers, and the military takes overflow. Similarly, troops don’t have the equipment or expertise to repair utilities — city workers need to do that — though they may assist by clearing roads or otherwise removing obstacles.

But in The Division those “obstacles” are often “people with guns,” and that’s where the game deviates from real-life precedent.

Local police continue their law enforcement duties in disaster situations. Full stop. The U.S. military doesn’t roll in after a hurricane or earthquake and start running the show, and it wouldn’t make much sense if they did. Soldiers don’t have the arrest powers police do, first of all, and it’s illegal apart from very specific circumstances. And while Army and Marine MPs are a response force staple, they restrict themselves to on-base operations and providing security for military missions. The MPs aren’t there to augment civilian law enforcement, but to make sure a city doesn’t expend police resources protecting military assets.

And they definitely don’t start shooting people. A few weeks ago, we discussed how civilian looting in the wake of disasters is largely a myth. To confirm that assessment, I contacted responders who’d worked disaster sites and asked them whether they’d ever been threatened in the course of their work. They dismissed the question as absurd. Most of the time, survivors break down crying when they see troops — it means rescue has arrived.

Most “looters” are, in reality, survivors trying to scrounge food and water. When military forces come in contact with them, they usually run — and when they stay, troops pass them off to a refugee center without punishment. In the rare instance when troops find a genuine looter — one who stole goods rather than supplies — they turn the suspect over to civilian law enforcement.

But that doesn’t mean disaster responders don’t deal with the dead — in fact, that’s an integral part of the job.

“Katrina Crosses”

Walk past a building in The Division and you might see a spray-painted “X” symbol, surrounded by numbers and words. What’s that about? Graffiti? A gang tag?

Wrong, these are FEMA symbols, a marking system the agency uses for search and rescue in cities. Here’s how to read them: One slash mark indicates a building that hasn’t been searched completely, while two slashes forming an X means the structure’s been checked and cleared. Around the X’s quadrants you’ll find relevant details, including the date of search (top), searching unit or agency (left), number of survivors and dead (bottom, separated by colon), and any relevant details about the structure (right). For example if you saw one that read:



0:6 DB

This mark would mean CERA searched the structure on April 7th, found no survivors, six dead bodies, and detected a Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, or Nuclear threat.

This is the other, darker side of military disaster response: mortuary services. After a hurricane, earthquake, or terrorist attack one of the main issues is how to collect the dead and catalogue them for identification. It’s the hardest part of the job. After day five, responders are more likely to find bodies than survivors, and that recovery process is psychologically draining. For a few days soldiers can live on adrenaline, getting a boost from each successful rescue, but corpse recovery — though necessary — is bleak and unrewarding. The Division’s spray-painted FEMA symbols hint at this numbing cleanup stage.

A diagram showing the possible message that could be left on a "katrina cross"-style marking A diagram showing the possible message that could be left on a "katrina cross"-style marking

These markings became symbols of Katrina. Many stayed on buildings long into the recovery, inspiring photo projects and folk art — a testament to the storm’s lingering ghosts. They’ve come to be known as “Katrina Crosses,” and you’ll see prints of them hung up in restaurants, churches, and hotels in New Orleans. While some saw the markings as comforting — a sign help had finally arrived — they also drew anger from residents who argued that insurance companies were denying claims based on the markings. Others felt they were a morbid reminder of the death and destruction.

These markings lend depth to The Division’s world — and along with the bed sheet HELP banners, CERA centers, and body bags — further ties the game to Katrina.

Though grim, it’s also a refreshing change of visual reference. Military games have drawn from 9/11 imagery for so many years, it’s interesting to see them create a New York disaster aesthetic that’s different from burning buildings and ash-covered streets.

So while The Division may not always be doing it right, at least it’s doing something new.

Photo of Vietnam LRRP by Wikipedia user Icemanwcs.  Katrina Cross photo by George Lazenby.