By Master Sgt. Shannon Nielsen, 155th Air Refueling Wing, Public Affairs
/ Published July 06, 2015
Puerto Rico -- -- Nearly 200 Soldiers and Airmen of the Nebraska and Iowa National Guard's vastly trained emergency response team operated with the Puerto Rico National Guard during Operation Borinqueneer Response 2015 in Puerto Rico, 16-20 March.
The operation was sponsored by U.S. North Command and National Guard Bureau.
Realistic training is conducted annually to ensure the Nebraska National Guard is prepared to respond to a variety of situations.
Units traveled across the Atlantic Ocean 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 CERFP for short.
CERFP is to respond to CBRNE incidents or other catastrophic events and assist local and state to perform mass patient/casualty decontamination and provide treatment as necessary to stabilize patients for evacuation.
"The team operates with approximately 197 people and Nebraska brought a full package which consists of four elements: casualty search and extraction (45 people), medical triage (45 people), decontamination (75 people), fatality and search and recovery (11 people from Iowa), and a small command cell of about 15-20 people," said Lt. Col. Tom Mortimer, commander of the CERFP. "We are down here working with the members of the Puerto Rico National Guard and other state agencies and we do this because this is a great opportunity to test our system.
"We have a packing list and when we get here we can only use what we brought," added Mortimer. "So, if we forgot something then we know where we need to fix our system."
The exercise started with Nebraska being notified of an incident at Puerto Rico where a simulated major earthquake happened and a possible tsunami coming in. With a variety of injuries and medical conditions discovered from the disaster, some of the casualties were found trapped under debris and the local responders have been overwhelmed.
"Our responsibility is to come in and fill in to help with a mass causality incident," said Master Sgt. Michael Roth, Medical Logistics for Nebraska's CERFP. "In this case, the scenario is an earthquake, where there was a chemical that was found or spilled; civilians are trapped inside what is simulated as a coliseum.
There is about 400-500 that we are assuming are still inside and we are coming into the footprint, we have been notified, we have packed up our gear and moved and we are staging, preparing the site for us to enter it," added Roth.
"A typical scenario we would cover is called a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) region," said Roth. "In a FEMA region there is a CERFP and a Homeland Response Force Package (HERF) that are to respond to major mass causality and catastrophic events. Our role is to fill in the 3-day period, the 72 hours, in which the local responders are overwhelmed."
After the CERFP is notified, they have six hours to get ready and leave their home station with 90 percent of their personnel.
"We are giving them time to get a response together based off the size of the catastrophic event", added Roth. "As we go through this exercise trucks roll in a line getting ready for the actual set up."
Operation Borinqueneer Response 2015 was created to make the scenario as real as possible to provide a realistic training environment.
"Typically your technician lines where your CERFP team members process through the decontamination line are on the far side, and then in the middle you're non-ambulatory and your ambulatory," said Roth. "All focus is away from the casualty site, we are trying to get patients out of the chemical area and go through the process called the hot zone, warm zone, and cold zone."
"The hot zone is the zone with patients being contaminated, warm zone being the area in which they are cleaning them and taking them through decontamination process and cold zone where we consider them clean," added Roth. "During this process we take contaminates off of the person by scrubbing them down, taking off their clothes and assisting to any injuries we have identified, cleaned and treated. We have triaged them and moved them on to the next level of care."
Within hours of the exercise the winds were blowing through the grass cut field of Camp Santiago, Puerto Rico.
The area from above looked like a swarm of ants that just took over an ant hill and 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.
"Our whole purpose is to contain what has happened here and prevent it from going out to the emergencies room, hospitals and treatment facilities," said Roth. "If we have a Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, sort of event we don't just want it spreading throughout the country. Our presence is supposed to be as short as possible. We are here to help the civilians we are not here to take over, we are just another tool or resource for them to help with the incident".
Exercises like Operation Bonrinquenner Response happens because the members of the CERF-P were ready to take on a challenge outside of the norm. Nebraska has been training in Ashland, Nebraska, and Salina, Kansas, where they are used to their surrounding and the culture.
For these Soldiers and Airmen this is not their sole occupation and additional training is required.
"Individual training is required and it involves both online and distance learning training. They also have at least two major events and two individual events we do each year," said Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Hansen, job title Nebraska CERF-P. "This is in addition to their normal Air Guard and Army Guard role they have to maintain as well."
"All Military Occupation Specialties (MOS) are involved in CERF-P it's not a specific Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) or MOS," said Hansen. "Most of the medical on the Air Guard side are medical folks. On the Army side we have communication, chemical folks, and mechanics just about everything in our force structure."
"This is a domestic mission we have to be able to pull from all our Soldiers so the base line of the individual training is more along the incident management of the domestic management system that we use to throughout the country with the civilian population and the military, so we have that common ground when we show up," added Hansen. "As far as the individual training on the equipment goes all the equipment that we have for missions like this is are commercial equipment off-the-shelf, not military that we use when we go to Iraq or Afghanistan or anything like that."
Training in situations like this is key to be ready to assist when the governor calls upon them.
"To know that you are not only a Solider or an Airman you have to be ready to deploy and engage enemies in the United States, when you do an exercise like this, you're doing something that very few people are doing. Out of the approximately 200 Soldiers out of the entire Nebraska National Guard that is a small fraction that has to do two missions," added Hansen. "They have to be ready to do two missions within days' notice, very few units have to do that."
This training proved that they would be able to help with a real world event if they were called upon.
"One of the most important reasons that we have to go to other places and do this is so we don't get complacent and set up in the same place all the time and meet and work with the same people all the time and this gives us an opportunity to work with people from other agencies," said Moritmer. "These are agencies that we will meet if we ever end in a real disaster and it's extremely important that we aren't exchanging business cards for the very first time at the scene of an accident.
"So working with these people now in the event of an incident we really would be working with these people."