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NEWS | Aug. 23, 2012

North Dakota National Guard, local civilian first responders react during no-notice training exercise

By North Dakota National Guard

FARGO, N.D. - The call came in to the North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department. A civilian cargo transport plane had crashed, spewing its contents before bursting into flames.

Firefighters from various agencies responded and once the fire was out, a hazardous materials team arrived in response to hazardous cargo listed on the flight manifest. In the meantime, the North Dakota National Guard's 81st Civil Support Team was activated from its Bismarck location.

The plane crash, burning wreckage and hazardous cargo weren't real. Rather, it was all part of a no-notice training exercise at the North Dakota Air Guard's Regional Training Site here that brought together civilian first responders and members of the North Dakota Guard to test their skills, as well as their abilities to work side-by-side, in response to a potential threat.

"We need to know what the civilian hazmat procedures are, what their equipment is, and how it operates," said Maj. Lila Teunissen, with the 81st CST, who helped coordinate the response. "They need to know what assets we have. We have a lot of commercial, off-the-shelf different types of equipment that will detect things the standard hazmat team cannot.

We are also a good back-reach resource; we don't necessarily have to come on scene to help out. This is one of those times where we are trying to put all the pieces together, to see what resources they've got, to see what resources we have, and see how quickly we can identify what's out there."

As an exercise coordinator Teunissen knew what would play out in the scenario, but for others involved the call came as a surprise. It's part of regular real-world type training scenarios the teams use to test and refine their response, said Teunissen.

"Neither (team) knew the debris field was going to be out there, so it was surprising," said Joe Svir, a firefighter with the Fargo-Morehead Fire Department, about the situation he encountered.

Even as the simulated radioactive elements were being discovered near the burned jet at the training site, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were on the way from Bismarck loaded with equipment and personnel ready to respond. All of that combined to add to the realism of the exercise.

"I think we should do this all the time," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Miller, a firefighter with the 119th Wing. "Because, if an incident does happen, it's not just going to be us (responding). It's not just going to be Fargo Fire (department). It's not just going to be Moorhead Fire (department). We are all going to be working together as a team. As much of this training as we can get, I think we should do it within our resource capabilities."

The exercise took most of the day, giving Guard members and first responders a chance to get to know each other's capabilities. The exercise ended with a firefighter simulating a heat stroke and a review of the events from which everyone could learn and make adjustments.

"It's a lot of fun," miller said. "They have the same viewpoints, the same ideal that we do as firefighters. They're all great guys out here. (I) love working with them and getting to meet them. We don't get a lot of opportunity to work with Fargo Fire or Moorhead Fire, so the big thing is getting to know the guys, getting to work with them and seeing how their attitudes are. It was awesome. Anytime they want me to work with them again, sign me up."