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NEWS | April 4, 2014

Florida disaster response team proves ‘best’ during the ‘worst’

By Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa Florida National Guard

STARKE, Fla. - A time-worn adage directs us to "train for the worst and hope for the best."

In late March, members of the Florida National Guard joined with local agencies for several days of emergency response training, making sure they were ready for "the worst."

And according to exercise evaluators, those Florida National Guard members who took part in the event are "the best."

More than 250 Soldiers, Airmen and civilian first responders participated in the Joint Integrated Capabilities Exercise at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, March 22-28, practicing their roles in case a major disaster with numerous civilian casualties occurs in Florida. The two-part exercise focused mainly on the responders" ability to manage CBRNE - Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives - issues and contingencies.

Throughout the week, the participants responded to a scenario where multiple explosions rocked a mid-size city during rush hour, destroying buildings and leaving mass casualities in the rubble. Exercise manager Lt. Col. Michael Ladd explained that the first three days of the event were centered on "Operation Integration VI" which brought the National Guard responders together with more than 10 civilian agencies.

Since it is the sixth year of this exercise, the military and civilians were synching well as they worked together to respond to the damage, Ladd said.

"It is always an opportunity for us to bring in first-responder capabilities with Florida National Guard forces, (and) to find capability overlaps and capability gaps," Ladd said, calling the exercise a "laboratory" for domestic responders to find best practices.

This year the Integration portion of the exercise included: the Florida National Guard"s CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP); the 44th Civil Support Team; the Florida Army National Guard"s 221st Ordnance Disposal Company; and other Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) and Light Technical Rescue teams from local and state agencies.

Ladd, who is also commander of the 44th Civil Support Team, noted that the exercise coordinators brought the different groups together to work side-by-side, rather than operate as separate agencies.

"We were able to break some of those walls to make sure that our best solution is formed by functionality," he said. "The seam between first responders and Florida National Guard forces in the domestic realm has got to be completely invisible."

When Florida Guard members crawled over rubble and worked with civilian responders to extract victims of the explosions, they came upon roleplayers and mannequins elaborately made-up to represent the injured. As the victims were led through medical triage and decontamination stations, Jacksonville Fire Rescue"s Capt. Sean Hatchett remarked that the synthesis of military and civilian responders in the exercise was developing strong partnerships for the emergency management community.

"Florida is leading the way and setting examples for the rest of the country," Hatchett said.

He added that although his teams are highly skilled, they were picking up a lot of techniques and information from the National Guard Soldiers and Airmen as the exercise progressed.

"We are starting to learn that the military brings a lot more than we previously knew," Hatchett said.

Some of that knowledge the Guard brought was earned in a combat environments overseas, according to Commander of the 221st Ordnance Disposal Company 1st Lt. Lee Bruister.

Nearly all of the members of his Camp Blanding-based unit have served in Southwest Asia as EOD technicians, and they have a wealth of experience in military grade explosives and deadly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Four of his Soldiers were participating in Operation Integration with members of the Jacksonville and St. Johns County Sheriff"s offices. Bruister said the training and familiarization with the different agencies were important for the 221st.

"The first time that we roll up on-scene should not be the first time that we meet (them)," he said. "If and when an accident like this happens, my guys need to know how the Jacksonville Sheriff"s Office works, and what tools and techniques they use. And vice-versa."

The second half of the exercise was an external evaluation of Florida"s CERFP, conducted by the Joint Interagency Training and Education Center and U.S. Army North. Florida"s CERFP was evaluated on several critical areas including: technical search-and-extraction; medical triage; mass decontamination; and fatality search-and-recovery.

According to the Florida Air National Guard, Florida"s team rated perfect scores in all areas, and is the first CERFP in the nation to receive a "trained" or "T" rating in every area. The Fatality Search and Recovery Team, also received perfect scores and was the first in the nation to be accredited with a CERFP.