By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 06, 2014
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Nearly 200 Soldiers and Airmen of the Oregon National Guard's highly trained emergency response team participated with the Hawaii National Guard during Vigilant Guard-Alaska 2014, near Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, March 24 - April 3.
As members of the Oregon National Guard's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosives (CBRNE) Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP), the team works with civilian authorities to respond to manmade and natural disasters.
Deploying for the first time to train outside of Oregon, aircraft of every size from the C-130 Hercules, to C-17 Globlemaster III's, KC-135 Stratotankers and the legendary C-5 Galaxy, arrived in Portland, Ore., to move the gear and manpower to support the exercise 'In the Land of the Midnight Sun.'
This is a training exercise, that brings together civilian agencies as well as military and National Guard assets to learn to work together, said Army Lt. Col. Mike Moffit, Oregon CERFP Commander.
The exercise in Alaska had both the Oregon and Hawaii teams assisting victims after a simulated earthquake. With a variety of injuries and medical conditions revealed from the episode, some of the casualties were found trapped under debris and were rescued by members of the CERFP search and extractions teams.
The disaster scenario was modeled after the March 27, 1964 earthquake and an ensuing tsunami that hit Anchorage and affected other parts of the state of Alaska.
"Were here to help the Alaska fire chief do search and extraction on collapsed buildings and treat victims of the earthquake," Moffit said.
Working in tandem with the Hawaii National Guard provided continuous support for the civilian authority under the conditions factored into the exercise mission. This allowed both teams to ascertain each other's best practices and learn to integrate those procedures.
"We have conducted several training events in preparation for this exercise, there are several schools that our Soldiers and Airmen have attended from online testing to actual onsite classrooms," Moffit said.
The training has occurred on every level from victim extraction, ropes courses, decontamination and chemical response and administrative accountability.
Moffit also noted the similarities in how the military task can begin to mirror the civilian mission. "Our command element attends many schools in conjunction with civilian response forces so that we all learn how to use the same language, use the same forms, use the same command structure and how we can create the military into a civilian force."
Within the structure of the CERFP, the unit is a joint mission, with the Soldiers and Airmen taking on different roles to create the team with the command and control structure being a blend of both forces.
The Army provides the Soldiers who do search and extraction and the decontamination group. The medical element and the fatality search and recovery teams are made up of Air Guardsmen.
For the Oregon CERFP, the Alaska trip is the first rapid deployment on a military aircraft and the first CERPF unit in the country to package the new decontamination trailer sent anywhere by airlift.
"It has three different types of showers and water heating elements, no one else in the country has flown this on a military aircraft until now," Moffit said.
As part of the Air Guard mission requirements, the medical teams took on both the training mission and a series of real-world medical requirements that surfaced with deploying to a much colder environment with long, stressful shifts.
"It was a little rough at the start, but as the Army likes to say, 'We corrected our fire,' and it was really incredible after that point. We dealt with a great deal of real-world issues, more than I expected but my medical team was amazing," said Maj. Alex Charney Cohen, the biological public heath flight commander and the acting medical commander for the deployment.
The Hawaii CERFP has a longer history than Oregon with many years of experience under their belts so their assistance played a role into streamlining issues early. Working together allowed for corrections to be adjusted as the exercise went on and improved problem solving from different perspectives.
"I was interested in meeting the Hawaiian element and see how another CERFP does business," Charney Cohen said.
He remarked on how well the Hawaiians handled the workflow of communication, adding he was impressed with how they had "an excellent grasp on how information works and how to make it flow."
On a lighter note, he said, "Somehow we all managed to stay warm too."
"We all have the same priority, which is saving lives but in terms of how we do it, we have to get that common language and common picture to build a method on how to get there together," said Air National Guard Maj. James Faumuina, medical operations officer, assigned to the 154th Medical Group, Hawaii Air National Guard.
The logical issues with moving so much equipment by airlift, staging the site and working in cold conditions was the accompanying factor built into the exercise for the CERFP teams.
"In terms of what Oregon has done and what Hawaii has done, we learn how to meld it together. In a three-day exercise like this we abandon the things that don't work and gravitate quickly to the things that do work in order to get the mission done," Faumuina said.
During the search and retraction point, some of the simulated victims became confirmed deceased as part of the exercise scenario. The fatality search and recovery team (FSRT) was called into action to begin the process of recovering the remains.
"It is only after the extraction team has returned to base that we begin the procedure," said Maj. Dawn Choy, Oregon FSRT commander.
The process involves having all the proper gear in place for each team member as they arrive to accomplish their mission. The process is careful and verified with the team keeping a thoughtful sense of solemnity in their work. The mission is to give full dignity to the remains and give a thoughtful approach by each team member to carefully recover the deceased individual.
"Oregon and Hawaii (teams) integrated very well when the opportunities to collaborate their efforts happened during the exercise," Choy said.
With a majority of the exercise initially committed to the medical response and saving lives, the FSRT portion of the training picked up toward the second half of the exercise.
For eager Airmen like Staff Sgt. Andrew Kalmback, assigned to the 142nd Fighter Wing services flight and FRST, the exercise really started on the second and third days.
"We got the tents up, and then got half-suited up and ready to go; we were on our A game. Our teamwork was excellent, especially once our tempo of work began to pick up toward the end of the exercise," he said.
The environment and location of Alaska allowed the two states to break up the routine of their normal training surroundings. Adding in the ability to work with civilian first responders and local authorities from different states was an additional challenge as well.
Lt. Col. Moffit noted that the mission of bringing both states and civilian factors into play was a positive experience for the Oregon CERFP team.
"Overall this has been an excellent training opportunity -- not only for ourselves, but for the firefighters and the civilian search and extractors. They are getting familiar with our equipment and our overall capabilities," he said.