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NEWS | Oct. 24, 2019

Nebraska Guard trains for emergency response

By Staff Sgt. Herschel Talley and Senior Airman Jamie Titus Joint Force Headquarters - Nebraska National Guard

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska National Guard Soldiers and Airmen participated in a joint emergency response exercise with multiple state agencies and community partners Oct. 19.

The Nebraska National Guard, along with Nebraska Task Force One, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency and other state agencies, civil authorities and local first responders, practiced how to respond to an emergency after examining the response to the spring flooding that caused significant damage around the state.

"Some of the capabilities that we're able to collaborate and bring together from the lessons learned from the floods in the spring was Task Force One having the Swift Water Rescue capability, Nebraska Guard having the aviation hoist capability and bring that together to provide the best response for Nebraska," said Col. Jan Behn, director of domestic operations for the Nebraska National Guard.

The exercise, Operation Titan Fall, was created to improve efficiency in air-to-ground communication and allocation of resources and involved a simulated emergency water rescue at Stagecoach Lake near Hickman, Nebraska.

Justin Schack, fire chief of the Hickman Volunteer Fire Department, said communication is critical in an emergency. With each rural fire department using a different radio frequency, it can be challenging.

"Bringing in an outside entity, trying to talk to somebody new that they may not see or ever worked with … so trying to do communication with them is an extremely large obstacle," Schack said.

The city of Lincoln has switched to from an analog to a digital system, causing additional complications with some of the rural fire departments.

"It just so happened that the Guard acquired some radio systems that can play with both, so we facilitated our frequency to the Guard to program our frequency into their helicopters," Schack said. "That is how we are operating today through those new radio systems they got."

Kevin Meschede, an Omaha firefighter and member of Nebraska Task Force One, was one of the divers who was lowered into the water to retrieve simulated casualties out of the lake. He said hoists with the helicopters are fairly simple.

"The crew chief and I have hand signals, and down we go into the water … and when we get into the water, hopefully, we land close enough to the victim," Meschede said.

He said Task Force One usually operates out of boats, but during the spring flooding, boats were unable to reach certain locations.

"Adding a helicopter component where we can be lowered down at a closer location is substantially easier than trying to get boats in some of those currents and waves and chunks of ice and whatnot that is in the water," Meschede said.

After retrieval by helicopter – Nebraska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota helicopters were used for the exercise – the simulated casualties were transported to CHI Health Saint Elizabeth hospital in Lincoln.

To test the hospital's capabilities, a dozen Nebraska Air National Guard trainees were admitted to the hospital at the same time as water rescue patients.

The trainees screamed in "pain" as health care providers assessed their feigned wounds in a simulated mass-casualty incident.

"I was worried because I am terrible at acting. It's probably why they missed the CT scan on me," said Gavin Peterson, a student flight member who will soon be working as a Nebraska Air National Guard aircrew flight equipment specialist. "But it was fun to see how they handle the situation and how they assess each person with immediacy, like who needs to go first and who can wait."

From assessing each patient to collaborating with first responders and the Nebraska National Guard, communication is key during an emergency.

"We really wanted to test our communication between the units, and so far today, we've had great communication," said Stacy Cerio, an incident commander at the hospital.

"It's nice to work with the Guard and some of our other responders just to make sure that we're on the same page," said Jeff Gonzalez, director of respiratory therapy and incident commander at the Saint Elizabeth hospital.

Cerio said until first responders bring in the patients, they know very little of what has happened, which is why communication is so essential.

"With this type of drill, we want to tax the system, try to figure out where our strong points are, where our weak points are, identify any shortcomings, and of course, essentially the things we are doing well," Gonzalez said.

The benefits of the joint mission were not lost on Sgt. Alec Rockford, a crew chief with Company G, 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion, who operated Meschede's hoist during the exercise.

"It's good to get that experience and be prepared for whatever comes down," Rockford said.