CAMP EdWARDS, Mass. –
The behind-the-scenes work has been taking place for almost two years, but now Guardsmen from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont prepare for the final push; the Homeland Response Force’s certification for Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region I.
“This is actually a unique opportunity, because it’s a multi-state HRF,” said Mr. Robert Salesses, deputy assistant secretary of defense, Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities, “To see how … Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts will come together. From my vantage point I saw a lot of positive things on the way that’s going to work,” he said.
Salesses was part of a delegation, which included members of Congress and general officers from around the nation that visited Camp Edwards, here, August 8, to observe the HRF at work.
A HRF is not a military unit in the traditional sense; it is designed along the lines of a Task Force, an entity that has specific troops and resources assigned to it for a unique mission. There are 10 HRF’s throughout the country, one in each of FEMA’s 10 regions and it is the latest version of the National Guard’s role in emergency response planning that has been taking place for decades.
During World War II, the movie “What to do in a Gas Attack” was authorized for distribution by the Office of Civilian Defense in case the country was attacked by the enemy.
This type of planning continued after the war. Any member of the baby boom generation can easily recall the old “Duck and Cover “ civil defense programs of the 1950’s; the old movies that taught school children to duck under their desks and cover their heads with their hands in the event of a nuclear attack by the now-defunct Soviet Union.
In today’s world the Department of Defense’s Defense Civil Preparedness Agency has been replaced with the Department of Homeland Security; the threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union is now the threat of a country or terrorist using a chemical or biological agent, “dirty bomb” or a full scale nuclear weapon. While the names have changed, the threat remains the same.
On April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City; Timothy McVeigh parked what would now be known as a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killed 168 people.
Sept. 19, 2001, Boca Raton, Florida; a letter containing the Anthrax virus is opened. This was the first of a series of viruses caring letters that were opened in Florida, Washington D.C., New Jersey and New York. Five people were killed by the virus and dozens were sickened.
May 8, 2002, Chicago, Illinois; Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen is arrested at O’Hare International Airport. Padilla had intended to attack American cities using a radiological device, a “dirty bomb.”
Jan. 6, 2005, Graniteville, South Carolina; a freight train carrying liquefied chlorine gas for a local mill crashed into a parked train after someone forgot to move a switch and reconnect the main track. The collision derailed three train engines and 18 other cars that caused approximately 60 tons of chlorine gas to spill and vaporize. Nine people died because of the incident, 554 were treated at local hospitals, 5,400 people had to be evacuated from their homes and many structures in the area had to be decontaminated. As serious as this incident was, the local authorities were able to handle it.
In military parlance the events listed above fall under the term CBRN; Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear. If such an event were to occur anywhere in the nation, the first people to respond would be the local authorities. If the local authorities needed assistance, then the governors could activate the National Guard.
It may seem to some that the Guard is preparing for something that will never occur.
“The threat is very real,” said U.S. Rep. William Keating of Massachusetts, 10th Congressional District, ranking member, oversight management subcommittee, Homeland Security, “To see the Homeland Response Force in action, to the see the training take place is very important. The training can save countless numbers of lives.”
For many years the Guard has fielded Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams and CBRN Enhanced Response Force Packages. These are units of highly trained National Guardsmen who are always on call to respond quickly to major disasters. The WMD CST units specialize in identifying the substances released accidently or intentionally, determining how bad the event is and provide advice on how to deal with it. The CERFP teams have the ability to search for and extract people trapped in collapsed buildings, provide medical treatment and if necessary decontaminate people who have been exposed to everything from chlorine gas to anthrax. The troops who man these units are a combination of Soldiers and Airmen from the National Guard.
“It’s great to see this kind of … huge operation,” said Keating, “This is the job that has to be done … these are the best people to do it. There are very few things that can substitute for being prepared. When it comes to a threat as real and as onerous as this; we have to prepare.”
If a CBRN event occurred and the Guard was called, the WMD CST and CERFP units would be the some of the first military units to respond. Depending on the size and severity of the incident, the HRF could be activated.
CST and CERFP units are smaller units and it is the mission of a HRF to provide command and control (i.e. coordination between military units on scene, troops and supplies heading towards the scene, as well as the military’s on site duties) and security for them as well as its own CBRN unit. The HRF would then support the civilian authorities and coordinate with any Department of Defense assets heading to the scene.
“The Department of Defense realized … that the active component could not get there fast enough,” said Lt. Col. Margaret White, deputy commander, 26th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, Massachusetts Army National Guard, “and that the Guard had the capability to do that.”
A HRF is designed to be on location quickly; with all of its troops heading towards an incident within 12 hours.
“The focus is on lifesaving capability,” said White, that’s why they (DoD) turned to the National Guard … we can assemble and deploy faster to an area … at least the initial response. That’s why there’s one HRF in each FEMA region.”
While the six New England states comprise FEMA’s Region I, each state has a very specific mission. Massachusetts is currently providing the largest number of troops because it is providing the command and control element, which includes an organic CBRN team. Connecticut and Vermont are supplying troops for the security element. Troops from Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island will form a regional CERFP; these troops can augment the HRF’s own CBRN team, act independently on smaller missions or be sent to augment another regional HRF. One important factor of the HRF’s structure is that it is a modular unit that can easily change. For example, the responsibility of supplying the command and control unit could leave Massachusetts and move to another state. This transfer has a dual benefit; it allows another state to take the lead in the event of a disaster, thereby strengthening the feeling of shared regional responsibility while providing an experienced reserve.
While the HRF concept is relatively new, each unit in the HRF and the CERFP is well versed in its specific job.
“It still the age old mission (of the Guard) to ‘roll-out’ in times of a disaster,” said Col. Frank Magurn, commander, 26th MEB and the Region I HRF, “The ability has been there all along for us (the Guard) to operate in a contaminated environment.”
The only difference is that the units will now train together.
“That’s what training is all about,’ said Magurn, “Make it as realistic and demanding as possible … do it again … and hope it never happens.”