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West Virginia Guard works with civilian partners to attain federal flood-rescue status

By Sgt. Zoe Morris | West Virginia National Guard | October 26, 2017

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - Members of the newly formed West Virginia Swift Water Rescue Team, comprised of West Virginia National Guard members and Clendenin and Glasgow volunteer firefighters, recently attained the necessary training and certification to identify as a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Type 2 swift water/flood search and rescue team.

The final training component, which took place Oct. 13 at the West Virginia National Guard Center for National Response, covered large animal rescue and response and gave participants the last certification needed within the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the comprehensive, national approach to disaster response.

Based on insight and lessons learned following the June 2016 flooding, the creation of the WVSWRT came about through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed Aug. 1, 2017. The MOU, signed between the WVNG, CVFD and GVFD, outlined a path forward through the training and standardization of swift water rescue teams to provide search and rescue services to the people of West Virginia.

The roughly 50-member team is comprised equally of Guard members and firefighters with extensive experiences in search and rescue and swift water rescue.

"We have a core team of individuals who train together, work together, know what each other's capabilities are, and who can forward deploy as a self-supporting unit so we don't go back and relive what we saw last June," said Maj. Walter Hatfield, Joint Interagency Training and Education Center (JITEC) Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) battalion commander.

Hatfield, along with Clendenin and Glasgow fire chiefs Kevin Clendenin and Marvin Blankenship, were driving forces behind turning ideas of a team into reality.

"This is just another example of the West Virginia National Guard's innovation and great working relationships with our first responder partners in the communities throughout the state," said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, The Adjutant General of the WVNG. "The capabilities of this group far exceeds anything we've had in the past. By meeting the national standard, we can ensure that when we are called to respond to our citizens needing assistance - whether here or anywhere in the United States – that we have the capability to support our first responder partners, such as Glasgow and Clendenin Fire Departments, who are some of the best in the country."

On the night of June 23, 2016, Chief Clendenin and his volunteer fire department's swift water rescue team were relying heavily on the WVNG's CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Package (CERF-P) team to aid in search and rescue in and around the town of Clendenin.

"We got pressed into working together because of the situation," said Clendenin. "We were playing sandlot football … drawing plans in the mud to figure out how to get our job done to help people and save lives."
Because of each entity's exceptional training, the teams were able to seamlessly integrate with each other to rescue more than 60 people in a 24-hour period.

"I can't speak enough about having that specialized swift water rescue team available, right at the flash point," said Maj. Will Hargis, deputy commander of the Civil Support Team, during the historic June 2016 flooding event. "Having that capability was critical in helping us save lives," he said. "They had the swift water rescue teams, and we had the assets to get them in there."

The partnerships between the organizations were further strengthened, Hatfield said, because every Guard member was trained on swift water rescue by Clendenin through Spec Rescue, a business nationally known for search and rescue training.

The training scenario was unique for the WVNG because it is not often that Guard members are given the opportunity to learn techniques such as swift water or animal rescue from civilian and community agencies.

Hatfield underscored that having the instructors as partners in domestic response operations is just another layer of ensuing success for the team.

For a team to be considered a FEMA Type 2, capabilities must include the ability to search for and rescue individuals who may be injured or in need of medical attention; provide emergency medical care including Basic Life Support (BLS); provide shore-based and boat-based water rescue; provide animal rescue; transport humans and animals to the nearest location for secondary air or land transport; support helicopter rescue operations and urban search and rescue in water environments; and operate in environments with or without infrastructure, including those with compromised access to roadways, utilities, transportation, and medical facilities.

"Becoming a Type 2 Swift Water Team shows both the training, dedication and expertise that the West Virginia Army National Guard has pursued," stated FEMA Region III Regional Administrator MaryAnn Tierney. "This capability is a tremendous asset to the people of West Virginia, and potentially the country, and provides a critical asset if potential water rescues are needed."

In the wake of a very active hurricane season earlier this fall, Hatfield conceded, along with Clendenin, that the team felt frustration in not being able to deploy to Texas and Florida, due to the few lingering certifications needed.

"There were a few benchmarks we didn't meet," Hatfield said.

He explained that the desire to be highly proficient and able to stand ready led to the large animal rescue training session in early October, earning the team the final required certification to become FEMA Type 2 eligible.

Clendenin said that even though they didn't go to Texas or Florida as a swift water rescue team, they've used it to their advantage to educate people about their capabilities and to identify deficiencies and be better prepared so there will be no question the next time disaster strikes.

"We've looked at thing like this for years," Clendenin remarked. "[There were] a lot of the logistical parts of it that we couldn't fulfill in a small organizations such as the fire department." He continued, "You don't have the dollars in pocket and logistical support the National Guard has, so a lot of those things we would see as a roadblock before, they're just non-existent because of the partnership with the [West Virginia National] Guard."

With the forming of this team, we can do a lot more pre-planning and be prepared as a rescue group, he explained. The team can work together and get a lot of the bugs worked out ahead of time and have a plan going forward, which is safer all the way around.

In a little more than a year and a half since discovering this vulnerability, the innovative approach and forethought of our community partners in CVFD and GVFD helped develop a national asset in disaster response.

"This helps the whole state on a level we haven't seen before," Clendenin remarked.

Going forward, the WVSWRT will continue to enhance their skills by working together and providing training to one another in order to maintain proficiency and better serve the citizens of West Virginia.