NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.
– More than 230 Massachusetts National Guard Soldiers and Airmen traveled to Western New York to participate in Operation Vigilant Guard on Nov. 2, 2009.
Vigilant Guard is a national exercise providing an opportunity for National Guard units to train in emergency response situations and work with local, state and federal agencies. National Guard Bureau and United States Northern Command sponsor the quarterly Vigilant Guard exercises.
The five-day military/civilian disaster response exercise simulated a 5.9 magnitude earthquake striking the Niagara Falls region. The scenario called for catastrophic damage throughout the area and multiple training sites to simulate an overwhelmed local response force, requiring outside assistance.
The size of the exercise provided training for individuals and units as well as command and control elements managing the logistics involved in moving housing and feeding the troops from multiple states.
“This is the first time we’ve scene any thing of this magnitude,” said Warren DeTemple, technological hazard program specialist, Federal Emergency Management Agency. Exercises like this strengthen the interoperability between the National Guard and civilian teams, he said.
Massachusetts Guardsmen role-played assisting the local response teams as different states rotated through the exercise. The 1st Civil Support Team loaded their equipment and personnel onto a Mississippi Air National Guard C-17 and flew out of Hanscom Air Force Base and setup at an abandoned building in Lockport, N.Y.
The building represented a PVC pipe factory that had been damaged during the quake and now posed a hazard to the community and environment. CST members donned protective gear and searched for toxins. During the search team members discovered evidence of drugs and documented their findings.
The main training area, ‘the rubble pile,’ was more than 20 miles northeast in Tonawanda, N.Y. The rubble pile is filled with debris that simulates a multi-story building leveled by the earthquake with mass casualties and obstacles.
The casualties were a combination of medical dummies and live role-players with various applications of trauma makeup. The pile’s obstacles included uneven terrain, collapsed concrete and crushed cars.
The site provided room for the hundreds of military and civilian workers to spread out their personnel and equipment for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear or high yield Explosive training exercise.
“You need to have something like this,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Cooper, weapons of mass destruction branch chief, Joint Force Headquarters-N.Y. “Look at the number of people being trained, you can’t replace that.” He said the rubble pile here is important because it is a live pile that isn’t strapped down and provides more realistic training.
The Massachusetts CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Package provided casualty search and rescue, casualty decontamination and medical support on site. Search and rescue personnel scoured the debris looking for casualties and carefully moved them out to either medical decontamination or treatment areas.
“This is the biggest exercise I’ve been involved in,” said Staff Sgt. Edward M. Cole, ropes squad leader, Massachusetts CERFP.
Cole said his team was responsible for evaluating and extracting casualties and was excited to be out training to save lives. Disaster response training is a break from the regular drill, he said.
“The site was very realistic,” said Sgt. Charles Rozier, a medic team leader with the 79th Troop Command, Massachusetts National Guard. “The most rewarding part of the exercise was getting everyone together and building some cohesion,” he said.
The injured moved off to the rubble pile were moved through the decontamination stations, when necessary. The decontamination teams would then sanitize the casualty so they could receive proper medical treatment.
“We can treat anything from advanced cardiac life support, intubation, stabilization through fractures,” said Air Force Capt. Christina Sampsonis, physicians assistant, 102nd Medical Group, Massachusetts National Guard. During the training day the medical personnel treated 18 critical patients, said Sampsonis.
Sampsonis said the CERFP’s mission was to replace the local counterpart without disruption. “Our medical group is outstanding,” said Sampsonis. “Everyone does a great job.” Their success is a result of the quality of the personnel assigned, she said.
The Massachusetts Guardsmen left New York better prepared to handle the real-world situations the exercise simulated and with invaluable experience on the rubble pile.
DeTemple said the event was beyond expectations and felt that each state should host a Vigilant Guard exercise.