CERFP Soldiers train for disaster response in Oklahoma

Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers from from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP, work in confined spaces, break and breach, life and haul, shore and crib, all at the CERFP Heavy Collapse Specialist Course taught Aug. 11-15, 2014, by Response International Group, or R.I.G., at Camp Gruber, Okla. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers from from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP, work in confined spaces, break and breach, life and haul, shore and crib, all at the CERFP Heavy Collapse Specialist Course taught Aug. 11-15, 2014, by Response International Group, or R.I.G., at Camp Gruber, Okla. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

CAMP GRUBER, Okla. – Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP, traveled to Camp Gruber, Okla., to attend the CERFP Heavy Collapse Specialist Course Aug. 11-15, 2014. The course took Soldiers through nearly non-stop scenario-based exercises that required the Soldiers to breach, break, lift, haul, shore and crib their way through confined spaces and rubble piles.

The CERFP is a unique task force made up of elements from different Virginia Guard units. The CERFP can conduct tasks associated with incident management, urban search and rescue, mass causality decontamination, technical decontamination, medical triage and treatment and fatality search and recovery. Three of the Soldiers who attended the course are assigned to the West Point-based 237th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion and four are assigned to the Bowling Green-based 189th Multi-Role Bridge Company, 276th Engineer Battalion. Soldiers from the Colorado and Hawaii National Guards joined the seven Virginia Guard Soldiers in Oklahoma for the course.

“It’s hard training, but we’re learning a lot very fast,” Capt. Marianne Heldmann said of the specialist course, the company commander of the 189th Multi-Role Bridge Company and a course attendee.

Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers from from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP, work in confined spaces, break and breach, life and haul, shore and crib, all at the CERFP Heavy Collapse Specialist Course taught Aug. 11-15, 2014, by Response International Group, or R.I.G., at Camp Gruber, Okla. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers from from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP, work in confined spaces, break and breach, life and haul, shore and crib, all at the CERFP Heavy Collapse Specialist Course taught Aug. 11-15, 2014, by Response International Group, or R.I.G., at Camp Gruber, Okla. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

The 96-hour course, taught by Response International Group, or R.I.G., aims to give Soldiers a taste of what working in a disaster situation would be like and builds on the experiences and lessons learned by the Soldiers at the CERFP Basic Course, a pre-requisite for the specialist course. Soldiers stay in a co-ed primitive housing unit and work grueling 18-hour shifts, completing missions at the more than 40 R.I.G. sites scattered across Camp Gruber. The training venues imitate a variety of different disaster sites that the CERFP could be called to respond to and require Soldiers to improvise to solve problems, complete the mission and save lives.

“It’s 96 hours of solving problems,” said Stephen Taylor, Camp Gruber training coordinator for R.I.G.

Even the meals the Soldiers consume at the course are made to mimic what responders often find at disaster sites where volunteers primarily provide the food. Pizza, hot dogs and Fritos chili pie are staples of the course attendees’ diets.

According to Mike Shannon, founder and owner of R.I.G., the goal of the course is to give Soldiers experience, not just in disaster response, but also as leaders and decision-makers in high-stress situations.

“In the Guard, you don’t get the opportunity to make calls everyday like you do in the fire service,” Shannon explained. “So the only way they’re going to get the experiences and get the lessons learned of what to do and what not to do is to go and get some experience and this class gives you that.”

Soldiers work in squad-sized elements and course instructors, with nearly 200 years of combined rescue experience at disaster sites including the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, serve as safety officers and observers, providing guidance to the Soldiers as needed and ensuring the training is completed safely. Soldiers take turns leading the squad and serving as incident managers, regardless of rank.

The course focuses on five key components of search and extraction: breaching and breaking, lifting and hauling, ropes, confined space entry, and shoring. The course also stresses improvisation and creativity as key components to successful disaster response, and forces Soldiers to think outside of the box when coming up with solutions.

“It’s awesome,” Heldmann said of the course. “We’ve learned a whole new set of skills coming here and we can better help first responders and firefighters get victims out.”

Shannon explained that disaster sites often lack close vehicle access and can require responders to haul their equipment for miles. This means responders have to improvise, using the items found in their environments to react to circumstances presented by the disaster.

For example, Shannon said from his own experience responding to tornados, scrap wood is often abundant, as are a variety of other tools and materials removed from garages and homes by the tornado, which can then be used to shore walls, thus aiding in safe entry to damaged dwellings. The course requires Soldiers to improvise in this same way, having them haul themselves and their equipment to a mock tornado disaster site. There, the Soldiers have to use the materials and equipment they carried in, along with whatever materials they find on site, to react to a variety of different scenarios.

“One of the biggest lessons, is that you have to make sure you use all the resources you can on site,” explained Heldmann. “Bring what you can, but you might not be able to bring a lot, especially in some of these places where you have to walk for miles to save victims, so being creative and using what you have on site is very important.”

At the specialist course, there is no single right answer. Each squad must come up with it’s own method for completing the mission and rescuing victims.

Spc. Chance Waddle, a team leader assigned to the 189th Multi-Role Bridge Company said he hoped to learn how to “mastermind plans,” and gain the ability to look at a site and immediately know how to respond to it without having to waste precious minutes discussing the best course of action.

The course stresses that sort of quick decision-making, timing Soldiers as they work through each scenario and encouraging them to spend less time talking and more time reacting.

“You have to learn how to make decisions when you’re tired and you’re exhausted and it’s two o’clock in the morning and you’re thirsty,” Shannon explained.

Photos: CBRNE Soldiers attend heavy collaspe course in Oklahoma

Related posts: