LIELVARDE, Latvia – A fire engine's siren pierced the morning's crisp air Nov. 16 at Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia. With it came the signal that a significant exercise had begun, testing incident command and triage procedures during a downed aircraft situation.
Working together in this exercise was a remarkable diversity of first responders: two Airmen from the Michigan Air National Guard acted as medical specialists along with Army Reserve personnel from the 407th Civil Affairs Battalion, plus counterparts from the Latvian Air Force. Approximately 15 firefighters from the Michigan Air National Guard, Latvian Air Force, and the Latvian State Fire Department (City of Ogre) were nearly indistinguishable in their bulky fire protection gear.
It was a scene facilitated by the National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program (SPP), a unique initiative that was established with support from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense. Michigan's partnership with Latvia – which began in 1993 – is one of the most enduring and successful SPP relationships nationwide.
According to Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Wohlford, fire chief at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Alpena, Michigan, advising the fire department at Lielvarde Air Base has been one of the SPP's major areas of focus for about five years, but adding their local civilian counterparts to an exercise was a new twist.
"Today, we wanted to see how they would respond together," said Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Wohlford, fire chief at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Alpena, Michigan."More specifically, we wanted to see how the Latvian incident commanders would link up to establish unified command."
Wohlford said that within four minutes, an initial cordon and incident command structure were established around a static Black Hawk helicopter on the Lielvarde flight line set aside for the exercise. The chopper came from the 3-227th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, Task Force Spearhead North; an Army aviation unit currently deployed to Lielvarde.
For the Latvian fire departments, the event marked several technical firsts – like the use of a refill truck to ensure continuous water flow to the simulated accident site.
"Our Latvian partners did really well today, especially for their first time," said Wohlford."We've never done continuous water flow in Latvia before."
As for the triage element, Master Sgt. Billy Fields, medical superintendent at Alpena CRTC, pointed out that it was a learning experience for both U.S. and Latvian first responders because of different cultural approaches to emergency management.
"In Latvia, they actually send a doctor to the accident scene, which is something we don't do in America," said Fields."We've been working together for about two years now and the Latvian teams are getting better in their processes for triage."
Later in the day, the same teams were reset to participate in fire drills amid a simulated structure fire, complete with artificial smoke and moulage props.
Brig. Gen. Ron Wilson, director of the Joint Staff, Michigan National Guard, observed the afternoon exercise.
"It was very intriguing to watch the City of Ogre fire department perform," said Wilson."Establishing mutual aid of that sort is absolutely critical."
Although the exercises marked several milestones in the development of Lielvarde Air Base's airfield operations capability, not everything went smoothly. According to planners, Thursday's exercises were more about highlighting areas for future improvement then they were about touting mastery of concepts.
"Realistically, the exercise today did not meet all of the objectives possible," said Kaspars Gaurilovs, fire training specialist for Lielvarde Air Base."But our emergency plans are a living document. The only way to improve is by running exercises with partners like our colleagues from the U.S. who have fresh eyes to see our processes – and by being honest with each other about the results."
Wilson agrees that process improvement is a task that takes time, effort, and trust."Ultimately, we're here to help, and that's where the relationship building comes in," he said."The Michigan National Guard is a perfect fit for the State Partnership Program because when it comes to our commitment to Latvia, we're in it for the long haul."