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Vigilant Guard exercise helps New Mexico prepare for disaster

By Staff Sgt. Tomora Nance | U.S. Army North | Aug. 14, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. – A disaster can strike at any time, whether it's man-made or natural, and being prepared is essential to any entity providing disaster relief. One way to ensure preparedness is training.

Several Soldiers and Department of Defense employees with U.S. Army North's Task Force 51 participated in Vigilant Guard 17-04 from August 3-11 at the Ornate Military Complex here.

The exercise simulated possible real-world, catastrophic disasters to help local, state and federal agencies collaborate emergency relief efforts through preparation, coordinate response and recovery management to the effected populace.

"Vigilant Guard is an annual exercise that takes place all over the country," said Col. Berry Graham, Region VI Deputy Coordinating Officer. "It is a joint response that is sponsored by Northern Command and the National Guard Bureau for the purpose of readying the National Guard forces for responding to catastrophic, domestic disasters."

For this exercise, the scenario that sparked the emergency response was a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

"This exercise was based off of the Rio Grande Rift scenario, which is a [Federal Emergency Management Agency] study," said Graham.

According to the FEMA website, the Rio Grande Rift is a geologic break in the Earth's crust that is approximately five miles deep filled with volcanic residue and bisects New Mexico possibly affecting over one million people in 11 counties.

The U.S. is divided into 10 FEMA regions. Each region analyzes threats to its areas and conducts training to provide support to the residents affected. Not only does FEMA train to help those affected but they also train to build relationships with various echelons of government. FEMA Region VI encompasses five states to include New Mexico.

"New Mexico National Guard was one of many emergency relief participants for this exercise," said Col. Emily Perry, the New Mexico Army Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer assigned to ARNORTH. "And, as part of the exercise, they wanted to use their various capabilities to assist in disaster relief with one main goal—helping the citizens affected."

If an actual emergency transpired, how do all of the different entities receive the call to action?

Graham explained the systematic chain of assistance following a catastrophic event.

"If there is a no-notice event such as an earthquake, we are completely in response mode at that point. The first responders to an event are local fire fighters, police and medical personnel. Once it reaches beyond the local level's capacity and capabilities, it goes up to the county. Once the county reaches their capacity, then they turn to the state authorities. Once the state reaches beyond their capacity, then the federal government is called in for assistance. We as [Department of Defense] are apart of that federal government footprint and are notified as an integral part of the FEMA's alert roster."

Not only was there a seismic earthquake that devastated New Mexico during the exercise's scenario, there was also a train derailment that caused a hazardous chemical spill in Lamy, New Mexico and a riot in Albuquerque.

"There were secondary incidents that resulted from the earthquake. So, the exercise had a very complex environment. It was a multi-echelon event, which made for great training of all agencies involved," said Graham.

Graham continued, "The various events were spread out over the state to encompass a larger footprint and make the training more realistic."
Perry said the New Mexico National Guard was able to train in the emergency relief efforts through rebuilding infrastructure, providing medical support and assisting with search and rescue through unique aviation support elements.

As for the outcome of the exercise, both Graham and Perry agreed that the training was a success.

"We learned a lot during this exercise about working together and rehearsing our capabilities with local, state and federal assets to show a united effort in supporting the affected citizens," said Perry.

Graham added, "I've been working with New Mexico officials on this exercise for two years and each time we conduct this exercise we hone our skills using this as a baseline for future exercises. I think it has been a great exercise and everyone has gotten something out of this training. New Mexico is very prepared because of this exercise."