WARRENTON, Ore. - Following a monumental season of wildfires, ice storms and the pandemic over the past year, emergency preparedness has become less of an afterthought and more of a necessary priority to Oregonians.
Members of the Oregon National Guard served on the fire lines during the wildfires of 2020 and are spread out across the state to serve the public at mass vaccination sites.
"Many of our members, being Citizen-Soldiers, come from many of the medical facilities around Oregon and so have been deeply impacted by COVID and taking care of COVID patients," said Lt. Col. Torree McGowan, medical element commander of the Oregon CERFP. "When the governor asked us to stand up mass vaccine sites, two-thirds of my unit volunteered to go and administer shots."
Hundreds of Guardsmen gathered the week of June 13 at Camp Rilea, Oregon, on the North Coast for a multiday emergency preparedness exercise to sharpen their skills if another large-scale disaster impacts Oregonians or their neighbors.
Many participants have civilian careers that connect to their emergency-specialized service, like emergency room physicians, EMTs, firefighters, police officers and pilots. Other members are stay-at-home parents, marketing professionals and telecom specialists.
One common thread is service.
"It's been a tremendous opportunity to impact the health and safety of our community because that's what we do as Guardsmen, that's why we put on this uniform," said McGowan.
Setting up for emergency operations, exercise or not, is a time-sensitive affair, a logistics puzzle with dozens of vehicles and trailers filled with specialized emergency aid equipment all required to be in place within hours of a disaster.
During the exercise, dozens of vehicles were assembled on base within 20 minutes. Service members donned HAZMAT suits and went through decontamination procedures. Role-players from the community simulated various maladies to test the expertise of the emergency professionals.
Air and Army National Guard members set up tents, tarps, caution tape, litters, generators, communications equipment and more. Guardsmen then began triage, search and extraction and decontamination procedures and provided simulated medical care in the glowing lights of a mobile mini-city.
The 102nd Oregon Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) Defense Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP) is part of the Defense Department's Homeland Response Force. The CERFP can deploy quickly and integrate with first responder teams or operate in a standalone capacity.
"This training allows you to get in a headspace where you can think about the decisions you're going to have to make and the pace at which you'll make them to ensure you're prepared mentally and physically to take on the work and get a victim out safely," said Spc. Margaret Ward, combat engineer for the CERFP.
A CERFP is composed of drilling Soldiers and Airmen from existing National Guard units or organizations. Training is part of a certification and evaluation process to ensure members are ready to respond at a moment's notice.
The specialized unit has medical triage, mass decontamination, combat security, and search-and-rescue capabilities.
"We know we have a mission that requires a lot of coordination, a lot of moving parts, so it's been nice learning from and getting to know the other branches," said Ward.
In addition to spanning multiple services, CERFPs can deploy by ground for nearby disasters or by air to distant missions. Equipment can be transported by rail or watercraft if the situation requires a more specialized approach.
"We come from our communities, we're drawn from our communities, we represent our communities and we want to be there for our communities on their darkest day," said Lt. Col. Evan D. Hessel, 102nd CERFP commander.