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Army, FEMA Prepare for Disaster Relief in Vigilant Guard Exercise

By Army Staff Sgt. Tomora Nance U.S. Army North

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SANTA FE, N.M., Aug. 14, 2017 — Whether stemming from manmade or natural causes, a disaster can strike at any time -- and the best way to mitigate the resulting fallout is through preparedness and extensive training.

Soldier posing in portable decontamination shower.
A New Mexico Army National Guardsman with the 64th Civil Support Team sets up a mass decontamination shower as part of a training scenario for the Vigilant Guard exercise in Lamy, N.M., Aug. 8, 2017. The decontamination site was part of a train derailment scenario that simulated the effects of a hazardous waste spill with more than 100 injuries. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Shelly Rogers
Soldier posing in portable decontamination shower. Vigilant Guard: Preparing for disaster relief in New Mexico
A New Mexico Army National Guardsman with the 64th Civil Support Team sets up a mass decontamination shower as part of a training scenario for the Vigilant Guard exercise in Lamy, N.M., Aug. 8, 2017. The decontamination site was part of a train derailment scenario that simulated the effects of a hazardous waste spill with more than 100 injuries. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Shelly Rogers

Soldiers and Defense Department employees with U.S. Army North's Task Force 51 participated in exercise Vigilant Guard 17-04, Aug. 3-11, at the Ornate Military Complex in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The exercise simulated possible real-world, catastrophic disasters to help local, state and federal agencies coordinate emergency relief efforts and response-and-recovery management.

"Vigilant Guard is an annual exercise that takes place all over the county," said Army Col. Barry Graham, deputy coordinating officer for U.S. Northern Command and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Region VI, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

"It is a joint response that is sponsored by [U.S.] Northern Command and the National Guard Bureau for the purpose of readying the National Guard forces for responding to catastrophic, domestic disasters."

The U.S. is divided into 10 FEMA regions. Each region analyzes threats to its areas and conducts training to provide support to the citizens affected. FEMA trains not only to help those affected, but also to build relationships with various echelons of government, including the military.

For this exercise, the scenario that sparked the emergency response was a magnitude 7.0 earthquake.

"This exercise was based off of the Rio Grande Rift scenario, which is a FEMA study," Graham said.

The Rio Grande Rift is a geologic break in the Earth's crust that is about five miles deep and filled with volcanic residue. It bisects New Mexico from north to south. Movement along the rift could affect more than a million people in 11 counties, two states and two countries. Several major cities lie within the rift zone, including Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos and Las Cruces, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas; and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Helping Citizens

"New Mexico National Guard was one of many emergency relief participants for this exercise," said Army Col. Emily Perry, New Mexico's Army emergency preparedness liaison officer assigned to Army North. "And, as part of the exercise, they wanted to use their various capabilities to assist in disaster relief with one main goal: helping the citizens affected."

Graham explained the chain of assistance that would follow a catastrophic event.

"If there is a no-notice event, such as an earthquake, we are completely in response mode at that point," he explained. "The first responders to an event are local firefighters, police and medical personnel. Once it reaches beyond the local level's capacity and capabilities, it goes up to the county. Once the county reaches their capacity, then they turn to the state authorities."

Once the state reaches beyond its capacity, the federal government is called in for assistance. We as [DoD] are a part of that federal government footprint and are notified as an integral part of the FEMA's alert roster," Graham said.

Secondary Incidents

The earthquake was just the start of the scenario. A train derailed as a result of the temblor, causing a hazardous chemical spill in Lamy, New Mexico, and there was also a riot in Albuquerque.

"There were secondary incidents that resulted from the earthquake. So, the exercise had a very complex environment. It was a multi-echelon event, which made for great training of all agencies involved," Graham said. "The various events were spread out over the state to encompass a larger footprint and make the training more realistic."

Perry said the New Mexico National Guard was able to train in emergency relief efforts through rebuilding infrastructure, providing medical support and assisting with search and rescue through unique aviation support elements.

Graham and Perry agreed that the training was a success.

"We learned a lot during this exercise about working together and rehearsing our capabilities with local, state and federal assets to show a united effort in supporting the affected citizens," Perry said.

Graham added, "I've been working with New Mexico officials on this exercise for two years, and each time we conduct this exercise we hone our skills using [it] as a baseline for future exercises. I think it has been a great exercise and everyone has gotten something out of this training. New Mexico is very prepared because of this exercise."