Vigilant Guard exercise prepares Virginia National Guard, partners for hurricane season

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the 34th Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear High Yield Explosive Response Force Package, known as the CERFP, respond to a simulated collapsed structure and possible hazardous materials situation May 8, 2018, at Fort Pickett, Virginia, during Vigilant Guard 18-3. (U.S. National Guard photo by Cotton Puryear)

SANDSTON, Va. — More than 2,000 National Guard personnel from six states and Washington, D.C., took part in the Vigilant Guard 18-3 emergency response exercise May 7-10, 2018, at multiple locations in Virginia. The goal of the exercise was to improve response to a natural disaster and enhance relationships with local, state and federal emergency response partners. It simulated a Category 4 hurricane making landfall in Virginia and exercised how the Virginia National Guard would assist in the state’s response with a full mobilization of personnel and coordination to bring in additional National Guard capabilities to help the state’s response effort.

“Vigilant Guard was an Olympic-sized event that gave the Joint Force Headquarters – Virginia team the opportunity to learn and experience a massive exercise that stressed the organization so they better understand the challenges we would face in a real world event,” said Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia. “The massive amount of planning that went into the exercise paid off, and this was one of the largest training events in our history. We brought together units from across the mid-Atlantic region that had never trained together in a situation like this, and this will help us be better prepared as we look at hurricane season starting June 1.”

Soldiers and Airmen assigned to National Guard civil support teams from Pennsylvania and Virginia respond to a simulated possible chemical spill aboard a commercial container ship May 8, 2018, in Newport News, Virginia.  (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne)

Williams explained that while the Virginia National Guard already has a longstanding and strong relationships with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia State Police and many other state, regional and local emergency response organizations, Vigilant Guard provided an opportunity to expand those partnerships even further. In particular, the Pennsylvania National Guard’s Homeland Response Force provided tremendous mission command capabilities, and it was exercised for the first time in Virginia working with multiple National Guard chemical response forces.

“The best thing about Vigilant Guard is that it reminded us how important these partnerships are, and how critical the team effort is when it comes to providing the support our fellow Virginians would need in a severe weather situation or any other kind of natural disaster,” Williams said.

The Virginia National Guard hosted Vigilant Guard 18-3 in partnership with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and the overall program is sponsored by U.S. Northern Command in conjunction with National Guard Bureau, explained Army Col. Todd Hubbard, the exercise director. It was one of multiple exercises taking place the first two weeks in May as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Level Exercise using a common scenario with more 250 agencies participating. The Maryland National Guard will host a Vigilant Guard exercise as well, and other events include NORTHCOM’s Ardent Sentry, the U.S. Coast Guard’s District 5 Hurricane Exercise, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Division Hurricane Exercise and U.S. Navy Fleet Forces Command Citadel Gale 2018.

The Virginia National Guard conducts domestic operations as part of a coordinated multi-agency state response, and usually in support of a lead agency like the VSP, Virginia Department of Transportation or local law enforcement or emergency services organizations. VDEM receives support requests from Virginia localities and the Virginia National Guard is one of many organizations that provides capabilities to help meet their needs.

A Virginia National Guard aviation crew and Chesterfield County first responders conduct aviation rescue hoist training May 10, 2018, at Enon Fire Training Center in Chester, Virginia, during Vigilant Guard 18-3 emergency response exercise.  (U.S. National Guard photo by Capt. Ben Melin)

VDEM, along with 18 other state agencies and 39 localities, exercised its hurricane plans and tested how well local, state and federal agencies work together to address hurricane damage as part of the 2018 National Level Exercise. Exercise play began May 1 and lasted through May 11 with the majority of Virginia’s participation taking place May 7. Participants will test activities related to pre-landfall preparedness and warning, emergency response and recovery, maintaining essential functions during a major disaster, and management of long-duration power outages and critical interdependencies.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam toured the Virginia Emergency Operations Center May 7, bringing his entire cabinet to see first hand the work that goes into coordinating a large-scale event and the many agencies involved.

“We are so proud to be able to work with so many great individuals and prepare not for if, but when, these emergencies will occur,” he said. “It was important to me, and to my cabinet, to come out and see what you do. When these emergencies occur, it takes all of us working together. It takes a tremendous amount of work, but days like this are important to really get ready for a big event.”

In the training scenario, a Category 4 hurricane made landfall in Virginia, causing severe loss of life and damage to residences, businesses and critical infrastructure throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. The simulated storm caused long-term power outages and cascading effects to critical infrastructure in the National Capital Region, including transportation and communications systems.

During the exercise scenario, the JFHQ-VA staff focused on the coordination required to generate response capabilities from outside the state. The Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division was activated as Joint Task Force Omaha and provided mission command for all military operational forces in the state and coordinate directly with VDEM Regions. About 2,000 personnel were on the ground conducting training and another 8,000 were simulated as conducting operations.

“The JFHQ-VA team did a very good job of anticipating requirements, moving from routine operations and then responding to a major weather event that exceed capabilities of Virginia and the Virginia National Guard,” explained Col. James W. Ring, the Virginia National Guard Director of the Joint Staff. “They worked through the process of bringing additional resources and capabilities into the state to get people the help they needed.”

Vigilant Guard also exercised the dual-status commander process where a National Guard officer is put in command of federal active duty and reserve forces in addition to Guard forces to provide unity of command for all military forces responding to the event.

While Virginia has very robust emergency response capabilities and highly experienced first responders, a Category 4 hurricane would exceed Virginia’s civilian and National Guard capabilities, Ring explained. Additional capabilities in active or reserve Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine or Coast Guard units could join the response effort, all under the control of the dual status commander.

“A complex disaster response requires a whole-of-government approach that incorporates federal, state and regional capabilities to save lives and reduce suffering,” Ring said. “After Vigilant Guard, the JFHQ-VA staff is better prepared for the challenges they would face in responding to that sized event.”

The exercise featured “boots on the ground” field training exercises in Stafford County, the Hampton Roads area, Chesterfield County’s Enon Fire Training Center in Chester and the Virginia National Guard’s Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett near Blackstone, Virginia. It also simulated the process the Virginia National Guard would use to bring in additional capabilities to the state through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.

Field training exercises included point of patient evacuation, distribution operations, responding to a collapsed building, testing for possible chemical contamination and aviation rescue hoist.

Anticipated National Guard capabilities for this type of event included evacuation support, damage assessment, search and rescue, communications support, debris reduction, wide area security, point of distribution operations, ground and water transportation, water purification and chemical, biological, nuclear and high explosive response support.

Key training tasks for JFHQ-VA included operational control of response forces, coordination with VDEM, mission command of subordinate units, tactical-level logistics support, force employment, identification of capability gaps and management of transitioning units within task forces.

The Virginia Defense Force provided support for the exercise as well. The VDF is authorized by the Code of the Virginia as the all-volunteer reserve of the Virginia National Guard and serves as a force multiplier integrated into all National Guard civil support operations.

VDF personnel augmented the staff at the Virginia National Guard Emergency Support Function 16 cell in the VEOC, and they also augmented the Virginia National Guard personnel operating at VDEM Region 5. They assisted with mission tracking, and VDF communications personnel also maintained regular high frequency radio communications between Portsmouth, Fort Pickett and the JTF Omaha headquarters in Bowling Green.

Units taking part in the field training exercises included the Pennsylvania National Guard’s Homeland Response Force, the Virginia National Guard’s 34th Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear High Yield Explosive Response Force Package, known as the CERFP, National Guard civil support teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Delaware, North Caroline and Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Helicopter Advanced Rescue Team.

A CERFP is capable of providing support to first responders and civil authorities after a chemical, biological or nuclear incident. The team is capable of conducting tasks including consequence management, incident site communications, urban search and rescue, mass causality decontamination, technical decontamination, medical triage and stabilization and human remains recovery.

There are 10 National Guard-sourced HRFs that are regionally oriented, and eight of the 10 are hosted in a state in each of the Federal Emergency Management Regions. At the core of the HRF is a response capability similar to a CERFP, and it also has substantial command and control and security capabilities. It operates alongside other National Guard-sourced CBRNE Consequence Management forces like Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams and CERFPs, as well as federal-controlled elements.

There are 57 National Guard Civil Support Teams in the country. The team is comprised of 22 full-time Army and Air National Guard Soldiers and Airmen and is equipped with a wide range of the latest military and commercial CBRN equipment. Their mission is to support civil authorities in the event of a domestic CBRN incident with the identification and assessment of hazards, advice to civil authorities and facilitating the arrival of follow-on military forces. The team maintains a high rate of readiness and can deploy an advance team within 90 minutes of notification with the rest of the team following within three hours. The CST includes six sections: command, operations, communications, administration and logistics, medical and analytical, and survey. Members of the team can scientifically identify nearly all chemical, biological and radiological substances, assess current and projects consequences of those hazardous substances, advise an incident commander on response measures ad assist with requests for additional support.

The Virginia Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team consists of Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 29th Infantry Division and members of Chesterfield County Fire and Emergency Medical Service Scuba Rescue Team. They work together to provide trained and ready personnel capable of conducting aerial rescue evacuation in situations where there is potential loss of life, limb or eyesight or significant property damage. The two organizations train together on a regular basis.

The CERFP is unique in that it is a task force that includes elements from multiple different units rather than one specific unit. Units in Virginia’s 34th CERFP include the following:

– Soldiers assigned to the Petersburg-based 276th Engineer Battalion provide command and control and incident management.
– Soldiers assigned to the Rocky Mount-based 229th Chemical Company serve as a mass casualty decontamination element.
– Soldiers assigned to the Powhatan-based 180th Engineer Company operate as the search and extraction element.
– Airmen assigned to the 192nd Medical Group stationed at Langley Air Force Base provide the mass casualty medical triage and treatment element.
– Airmen assigned to the 192nd Communications Flight at Langley Air Force Based provide communications capability using the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability, or JISCC.
– Airmen assigned to the 113th Service Squadron from the D.C. National Guard operate as a Fatality Search and Recovery Team.
– The Virginia Beach-based 329th Regional Support Group provides training readiness oversight for the CERFP.

View more photos from Vigilant Guard 18-3 on Flickr:
Vigilant Guard 18-3 Photo Collection