Exercise Prepares National Guard for Worst-Case Scenario
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 5, 2006 Military and political officials, foreign nationals and media observed yesterday as Army and Air National Guardsmen from five states and the District of Columbia responded to a mock disaster staged at the D.C. National Guard Armory.
Members of the 34th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, from Blackstone, Va., work through the decontamination site after having been in the "hot zone" of a fictitious nuclear incident. "Vital Guardian," held at the D.C. National Guard Armory, was an Army and Air National Guard training exercise to strengthen response to a catastrophic event. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Mock news reports, a news conference and a brief address by the fire chief were only the set-up for a training exercise dubbed Vital Guardian.
"What you're watching here is field training to a standard," said Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. "The scenario is ... in the District of Columbia and we've cobbled together a task force from five different states to come in."
Combining units from Michigan, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia made the exercise more difficult, but it also proved the states' techniques, skills, tactics, training and procedures are interoperable, Blum said.
"Every one of these (teams) will be stretched beyond (its) limits on purpose," he said. "It's a deliberate stressing of the capabilities to find out how far they can go before they break."
Civil support, medical, engineering and chemical teams were among those stretched to their breaking point.
The scenario created by the "explosion" could have been much worse, said Army Lt. Col Jeff Hice, commander of the 34th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, out of Blackstone, Va. "This scenario is a half-a-kiloton yield from an improvised nuclear device," he said. "Pretty much just enough to collapse the stadium, do some structural damage, start a lot of fires and spread a lot of radiation. But a big deal if it happens."
Hice's team, a mix of full-time Army and Air National Guardsmen, is on round-the-clock standby for just such an event. An advance group from the team deploys within 90 minutes of notification, the rest of the team within three hours.
Yesterday, Hice's team would have arrived just 90 minutes after the explosion.
"We're helping at this scene by identifying any chemical, biological or radiological hazards," he said. "Think of the (team) as a strategic reconnaissance. We come in; we give that ground truth to the incident commander and to the military authorities on what is happening here."
To provide this information, civil support team members need to travel to the actual site, Hice said. Their time down at the site is limited to an average of 90 minutes, however.
"Short work cycles, coming back through decontamination, and then we're pushing fresh people -- trying to limit how much radiation these guys are sucking up," he said, adding that in a 24-hour period, he can rotate an individual to a contaminated site four to five times.
Through its portable satellite, the team also can provide secure communications in devastated areas, Hice said. The team's capabilities also can make it possible for responders using different communications systems to talk to each other, and to get the mobile laboratory's analysis of samples collected "down range" to the next level for further analysis.
Once the situation was assessed, search and rescue began.
As "victims" were discovered and extracted from the rubble of the stadium, they were sent through a decontamination site separate from the civil support team. First their medical condition is evaluated, and victims are color-coded with tape. Black tape indicates an individual is dead or expected to die soon. Yellow, green and red mean an individual can wait for treatment, has minor cuts and bruises, or has a major trauma, respectively.
Medical personnel participating in yesterday's exercise were part of the West Virginia Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP. There are currently 12 CERFPs throughout the country.
Medical teams can't actually practice medicine on the mock victims in such an exercise. That's where "George" comes in, said Air Force Dr. (Lt. Col.) Sydney Jackson, commander of the 130th Medical Squadron. Jackson and members of his squadron participated in the exercise as part of the West Virginia CERFP.
George is a $36,000 patient-care simulator, Jackson said. Doctors can administer intravenous solutions to George, perform CPR or even a tracheotomy. The simulator's responses to treatment and procedures are lifelike thanks to the computer program that makes him tick. This gives medical personnel a taste of what patient care in a real emergency is like, Jackson said. "(With George) we can train all the time," he said. "Then when a patient is truly there, we have the right responses."
Blum likened the exercise to training a muscle, with the personnel as the muscle. You train it to failure, give it time to rest, and train it again under tougher conditions.
"What we're training for is what we hope never happens," he said. "I think (we're) recognizing that the world is changed and we need to change some of our capabilities to be more relevant for the new changed world."