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Soldiers, Airmen respond to simulated natural disaster, chemical spill

MEADE, Neb. --    When a city is hit by a natural disaster, the destruction can be devastating. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and landslides have affected virtually every corner of the United States, wiping out buildings, chemical plants, businesses and homes.
   And when disaster strikes, the state's governor can call upon the National Guard to respond.
   For this exact reason, realistic training is conducted annually to ensure the Nebraska National Guard is prepared to respond to a variety of situations. Units from the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard and one Iowa ANG unit traveled to Mead Training Site, Neb., April 5-7, to hone their skills by assisting in the recovery of a simulated natural disaster and chemical spill. The consolidated units are known as Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERF-P for short. The Guard units combined to create a 197-person CERF-P team.
   According to Army Lt. Col. Steven Petersen, 126th Chemical Battalion commander who also commands the CERF-P, April's training was designed to prepare the Guardsmen to respond to any natural disaster, especially with CBRN elements present.
"(A CERF-P) can be used with a tornado, earthquake, any type of a train derailment in which a chemical substance was leaked," said Petersen. "It could be used if there was an actual nuclear device set off. It could be used to clean off radiation."
Within hours on day two of the exercise, the overcast, windswept prairie of the Mead, Neb., training area morphed into a bustling tent city. In less than 90 minutes, the empty field transformed into a fully functioning military facility, complete with tents, machines, medical equipment, as Soldiers and Airmen prepared to respond to a simulated natural disaster.
   The Guardsmen were then given a nightmarish scenario: a simulated F-5 tornado struck the heart of Omaha, Neb., during a College World Series baseball game at a downtown stadium. The once festive game quickly changed from excitement with cheering fans to shrieks of terror and catastrophe as the tornado tore through the stadium leaving behind death, destruction and victims buried underneath debris.
   The tornado then aimed its wrath toward visitors of the Henry Doorly Zoo, which was packed with adults and children eager to visit the exotic zoo animals. The tornado demolished the IMAX Theater, ripped children from their parent's arms and left broken bodies amid massive piles of crumbling buildings.
   To make matters worse, the tornado then destroyed a nearby chemical plant causing hazardous material to be released into the air, contaminating everything and everyone in its path. 
   The CERF-P scenario began just after receiving the call from the governor of Nebraska asking the National Guard to help search for, rescue and decontaminate casualties trapped in the rubble and surrounding buildings.
   Petersen said the training was designed to prepare the CERF-P teams for their validation later this spring. The exercise spanned three days and was modeled after a "crawl, walk, run" approach. The first two days were designed to be learning days, so the exercise was slower paced, with in-depth, hands-on training. By day three, the teams were performing their jobs efficiently and effectively.
   Army National Guard Soldiers from the 623rd Engineer Company, 754th Decontamination Company and the 126th Chemical Battalion's Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment joined Airmen from the Nebraska Air National Guard's 155th Medical Group and Iowa's 132nd Mission Support Group and Force Support Squadron Services Flight for the exercise.
   While at Mead, the Soldiers and Airmen spent three days working as a joint task force building a decontamination and medical site for victims of a natural disaster. They were required to build a tent city from the ground up and have it fully functioning within 90 minutes.
   Petersen said each unit comes to the training with different skills and a specific role to play.
   "The battalion search and recovery is primarily in charge of going in and recovering fatalities from the incident cite," said Petersen. "The search and extraction team is in charge of... extracting survivors from the rubble and bringing them to the decontamination site. The decontamination folks have three different lanes set up. They have an ambulatory (lane) for people who can help themselves, non-ambulatory for those who are on stretchers, and a (technician) decontamination line to decontaminate our own folks, so anyone who goes into the hot-zone has to be decontaminated."
   The command and control team from the 126th Chemical Battalion directed the overall activities of the exercise and coordinated with the incident commander and the Guard organization's higher headquarters. Search and extraction elements from the 132nd MSG and 623rd Engineer Co. performed surface rescues from structural collapses and removed debris to rescue accessible victims.
   The 754th Chemical Co. set up decontamination lines and processed patients through, ensuring they were free from contamination before taking them to the medical element. There, Soldiers assisted injured patients under close supervision of medical personnel.
   The 155th Medical Group provided pre-hospital emergency medical treatment at the rescue site. The medical element worked with decontamination and casualty rescue teams to perform medical triage, treatment and stabilization. They also ensured that Airmen and Soldiers working during the CERF-P exercise were receiving adequate rest periods to avoid injury.
   Petersen said it was important to give each unit involved a chance to learn and operate together prior to their CERF-P validation.
   "It's a great opportunity because it's a real world mission that they could be called out for and provides some skills that they don't normally train on," said Petersen.
   Army Spc. Monique Pizzuto, a member of Detachment 1, 754th Chemical Co., said this was her first time participating in a hands-on decontamination exercise. She said she was learning the different steps required to decontaminate and dispose of unserviceable equipment. She added that the live, hands-on training was effective because it brought a real-world feel to the exercise.
   Next to the chemical decontamination tent was the personnel decontamination site where any Airman or Soldier who entered the hot-zone had to be decontaminated. Army Sgt. Clarisa Kumm, a member of Detachment 1, 754th Chemical Co., said each time personnel enter the hot-zone and return to the cool-zone where there is no danger of chemical contamination, they must go through the entire process of decontamination.
   "We decontaminate our own Soldiers. We decontaminate the search and extraction team and all the other non-ambulatory and ambulatory Soldiers," said Kumm. "We take care of our own."
   Petersen said that while Army and Air National Guard joint tasks are becoming more frequent, challenges still arise because of different dialects, standards and personnel interaction. Still, he said, everyone is comfortable working together.
   Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Noble, 155th Medical Group chief of air and space medicine, was one of two medical non-ambulatory doctors in his tent. He worked side-by-side with Soldiers transporting injured victims on stretchers from the decontamination tent to the tent in which he was working.
   Noble said the two Air Guard units were able to set up their site in an hour, beating the standard by 30 minutes. This speaks volumes about the readiness of the 155th Medical Group because in a real-world disaster, every moment counts.
   "This is a very valuable exercise," said Noble. "It will give people a real chance to perform during a real event."
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