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New York Army, Air Guard members hone disaster and terrorist attack response skills

By Staff Sgt. Ryan Campbell | New York National Guard | June 17, 2016

ORISKANY, N.Y. - More than 700 New York National Guard Airmen and Soldiers tested their ability to respond to a major terrorist attack or disaster during an intense five-day exercise here June 12-18.

The drill honed the skills of the New York National Guard led Homeland Response Force assigned to FEMA Region II and resulted in certifying Airmen and Soldiers and their leaders in the roles they would play during an actual response to a Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear incident.

While all the various elements of the force have trained and prepared for the past year for the exercise at Oriskany, this was the first opportunity for the entire force to come together for training.

"Looking at each piece and how it comes together, it's amazing," said Master Sgt. Tammy Freeman, a member of the New York Air National Guard's 107th Airlift Wing."You understand the whole process and see just how much goes into it."

The Homeland Response Force, or HRF, integrates Soldiers and Airmen who are trained to extract victims from a damaged or destroyed building, decontaminate them if chemical, biological, or radiological agents are involved, and provide basic medical triage for further civilian medical care.

The most important piece of the HRF is the mission command element-now provided by the 42nd Infantry Division headquarters, based in Troy, N.Y.

The assignment of a major headquarters allows additional National Guard or even federal chemical, biological, and radiological response elements to respond to an incident while providing the required logistical and administrative support and security that large numbers of troops require, said Brig. Gen. Gary Yaple, the 42nd Division Deputy Commander and senior officer of the HRF element for the exercise.

Each Federal Emergency Management Agency region has an HRF. The FEMA Region II HRF supports New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands but can respond anywhere if required.

This year's validation training exercise took place at the New York State Preparedness Training Center in Oriskany, New York, which is configured to support emergency response training. The facility is run by New York's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and has unique facilities for the training of first responders, including the "rubble pile" that simulates collapsed buildings.

One key component of the training exercise for the HRF included the New York Air National Guard' Mobile Emergency Operations Center, or MEOC, based at the 174th Attack Wing in Syracuse. The command center deployed to provide a simulated incident command post, allowing civilian emergency responders on the ground to provide guidance to National Guard commanders arriving at the incident scene.

"A MEOC provides a complete office space and working environment for emergency responders in the event of a disaster," said Tech. Sgt. Joe Hernon, assigned to the 174th Attack Wing, supporting for the MEOC."Basically in a half an hour you have a fully operational office with phone, computers and internet," said Hernon."As long as there is a satellite connection, we have communications."

For the exercise, a civilian incident commander established the incident command post at the Guard MEOC to provide directives and orders to the HRF elements on the ground to prioritize, plan and complete their tasks, said Hernon. They then reported the results of all they have done back to the incident commander, he said.

The HRF response units set up their own facilities, to include decontamination tents and medical facilities in order to provide response efforts. The location they work in is evaluated for various chemical, biological, radiological and explosive contaminants and hazards, and causalities are searched for, extricated, decontaminated and triaged for further medical treatment.

Much of the heavy lifting, literally, is conducted by the HRF Search and Extraction Team Soldiers who don protective haz-mat suits and evacuate victims from the incident site.

"We do rope rescue missions, confined space rescue missions, lifting and hauling, and breaching in order to get to a casualty that is trapped and get them out," said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Gump, the NCO in charge of the search and extraction team, the mission of the 206th Military Police Company from Latham, New York.

Search and Extraction Team members work in contaminated "hot" zones and face the risk of falling objects, contamination and secondary explosives, said Gump. Once they come out of a contaminated zone, they also have to go through the process of being decontaminated and a full medical evaluation to ensure they are able to go out for further missions, said Gump.

For these Military Police Soldiers, this is their first major training event as the team had just been put together within the past year to receive additional training and equipment for the unique role.

"It's going pretty well; we're learning a lot," said Gump."We hope to gain the knowledge and the ability to do our mission and know we can accomplish it."

While the members of the 206th MP Company search for casualties, Airmen from the 107th Airlift Wing's Force Support Squadron from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station have the task of searching for fatalities.

"We are going out to recover fatalities from the hot and cold zones," said Freeman, who is a member of the Force Support Squadron based at Niagara Falls. The team has been training on this task for three years, but each time they are always looking to do their best and improve, said Freeman.

"It's a lot of hard work," said Freeman."But it's very rewarding, once you do it you feel very proud of what you've done."

Any time an individual is brought out of the hot zones, they must be decontaminated to ensure nothing dangerous is brought into the cold zones. That is the task of the Brooklyn-based 222nd Chemical Company.

"Casualties are brought here and it's a four-step process," said Staff Sgt. Dean Lucas, the NCOIC of the non-ambulatory decontamination facility, assigned to the 222nd Chemical Company.

"If they're contaminated, clothes are cut off extremely quickly and then they are transported to the wash," Lucas said."The contaminants are washed off and they are then moved to a monitoring station to see if there are any residual contaminants remaining."

The goal with this training is to make sure everyone can confidently accomplish this task, as this is vital to saving lives, Lucas said.

From there, the casualty is dressed and moved to receive a medical evaluation and any required treatment, he said.

"We can see anything from crush injuries to blast injuries, depending on the scenario they give us," said Maj. Edward Roden, a critical care medical officer assigned to the 105th Airlift Wing from Stewart Air National Guard Base, Newburgh, New York.

"We have to do full assessments," Roden said."We can see everyone from pediatric patients and pregnant patients." Though this is a only a training event, all of the medical professionals never lose sight that in the real world they would be saving lives, he said.

With temperatures rising during the week of training, they are also on hand to provide medical support for anyone who might be feeling the effects of the heat, Roden said.

Once the medical staff on site sees them, casualties are transported off site to receive any further care and treatment they need, Roden said.

This week of training allowed individuals from across New York State to come together and work as a team and understand the magnitude of what the HRF sets out to accomplish. The teams come together and their knowledge is always growing from scenario to scenario, Freeman said.

"You never know what's going to happen," Gump said."There's disasters that happen and they need people with the knowledge and skills to be able to go rescue people."

At the end of the evaluation, the members of the HRF will be certified and entrusted to carry out these important duties in the event that they are needed. For everyone involved, they look at it in the best way possible.

"It's hard work, but I love it," Lucas said.