Special Va. Guard response force recommended for validation after external evaluation

Soldiers and Airmen assigned to a special response force of the Virginia National Guard participate in various training scenarios May 13, 2015, at the Virginia Beach Fire and EMS Training Center in Virginia Beach, Va., to prepare for an external evaluation scheduled for May 15. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Miko M. Skerrett, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – A special Virginia National Guard response force that would assist first responders and civil authorities after a chemical, biological or nuclear incident was recommended for validation after being assessed as fully trained on 19 of 23 total major tasks, needing practice on four tasks and having no untrained tasks by an external evaluation held May 15, 2015, at the Virginia Beach Fire and EMS Training Center in Virginia Beach, Va.

The evaluation team from the West Virginia-based Joint Interagency Training and Education Center recommend validation, and the process will continue through National Guard Bureau to U. S. Army North. The final results for full validation are expected in about 45 days.

Four days before the evaluation, Soldiers and Airmen of the Virginia National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High-Yield Explosive Response Force Package participated in training exercises to prepare for the event. Known as the CERFP (pronounced “surf-p”), the unit is able to deliver teams that specialize in search and extraction operations, mass casualty and technical decontaminations, fatality search and recovery, incident management and medical triage and treatment.

As one of 27 CERFP teams across the nation, the unit was authorized in June 2006. It is comprised of Soldiers from the Virginia National Guard’s Petersburg-based 276th Engineer Battalion, the Rocky Mount-based 229th Chemical Company, the West Point-based 237th Engineer Company, and Airmen from the 192nd Medical Group and the 192nd Fighter Wing, based out of Langley Air Force Base. Airmen from the D.C. National Guard’s 113th Service Squadron are also included in the response force package.

“The 276th Engineer Battalion has been earmarked as the CERFP force provider for the search and extraction, decontamination, and the command and control teams,” said Army Maj. Colin Noyes, commander of 276th Engineer Battalion, 91st Troop Command. With the command and control element, known as the C2, assigned to the battalion, Noyes is also tasked as the CERFP commander.

The CERFP receives an external evaluation every three years, said Noyes. This year, the Joint Interagency Training and Education Center and the National Guard Bureau deployed observers and subject matter experts to conduct the assessment. With a score based on the performance of 23 major CERFP-specific tasks, the graders created a simulated disaster scenario for the unit and watched how the Soldiers and Airmen performed tasks such as search and extraction operations, creating and operating a response decontamination site, conducting ambulatory and non-ambulatory decontamination, and providing treatment and emergency care for casualties.

“I am delighted with the successful validation recommendation for our CERFP,” said Col. Lapthe Flora, commander of 91st Troop Command. “They worked very hard for months to prepare for this evaluation, so they earned it, and I am very proud of the dedication they demonstrated by serving as members of this high tempo and unique team. As Citizen-Soldiers we have to master the art and science of warfighting, be responsive to the needs of our communities as well as cultivate enduring partnerships with our local first responders. This team has done all of these things and successfully demonstrated the true value of a Citizen-Soldier. My congratulations to all of them for a job well done.”

The CERFP was last evaluated in May 2013, and received a “fully trained” rating on 15 out of 16 graded tasks. This year, the CERFP was evaluated with two new elements that were not assessed during the 2013 validation event, which added seven additional graded events. On top of these new challenges, the CERFP had to operate safely in the hot and humid Virginia Beach summer weather.

“We will definitely validate this year,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Daryl Plude, the CERFP command sergeant major during the training and preparation phases. “We will shoot for perfection, but at the end of the day, what matters is the mission and saving lives, not a perfect score on a piece of paper.”

Initial Speed Bumps

The CERFP is a very unique capability in that not only is it comprised of both Air Force and Army units, but these Soldiers and Airmen are also based in different locations throughout Virginia and in Washington, D.C. Coordinating an exercise for the CERFP involves working with several different chains of command, equipment and even cultures, said Plude. Both branches had to learn and understand the capabilities and methods of the different equipment and personnel to figure out how to seamlessly incorporate each other into the mission, while maintaining the requirements of their respective state missions.

In his role, Noyes is in command of troops that he doesn’t get to meet and work with on daily basis, but is charged with uniting them as a team to perform a very important mission.

“Regardless of the digital pattern of our uniforms, we have to work together,” said Noyes. “When we meet, it’s a handshake and a quick hello, and there is a mutual understanding that we’re going into this mission together as one team.”

Not only do they face these initial challenges, but this year there were two new elements to work with during the evaluation – the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability of the 192nd Fighter Wing and the Fatality Search and Rescue Team from the 113th Service Squadron.

“We trained with the JISCC for the first time in February,” said Plude. “This is also the first time that the FSRT is being evaluated as part of the CERFP.”

Another challenge for the CERFP is not only finding the time to train together, but to train with the equipment designated for the task force.

Most of us [in the JISCC] are traditional Guard members,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Fernandus Branch of the 192nd Communication Flight, 192nd Fighter Wing. “We don’t get the time to have our hands on the equipment as someone who does this job full time.”

As a member of the JISCC, Branch and his team are in charge of setting up and maintaining all means of communication when the CERFP is activated. When setting up phone lines and computers with internet capabilities, there will almost always be equipment issues, but what is important is how the JISCC works together to solve the issues, said Branch.

“[On Tuesday] it took us about six hours to make sure our section was up and running,” said Branch. “But [on Thursday], it only took us 57 minutes.”

Based on their performance the last day of refresher training, Branch said that he had no doubt in his mind that they would pass the external evaluation.

Establishing the Office

Known as the “footprint,” the CERFP created a base camp using a parking lot flanked by various training areas that looked like sets built for a major disaster movie. The training area used for both the preparation training and evaluation included a multi-level building made of stacked shipping containers surrounded by varying amounts of concrete rubble, which was also strategically placed inside to give the true feel of a crumbling structure.

Due to the nature of the CERFP mission, everything about the construction of the footprint is a coordinated effort.

One of the most impressive aspects of the exercise is the ability of the CERFP to adapt the footprint to the assigned area. In a single parking lot, a unit of over 200 Soldiers and Airmen arrived in a specific order that allowed each team to safely guide multiple pickup trucks pulling trailers of varying sizes or buses carrying personnel to their designated parking spots and begin their setup as others entered the footprint. This puzzle was carefully put together by the team, who had timed the entrance of each element into the footprint down to the minute. Minor adjustments were made throughout the week, but overall the easy flow of the team into the area appeared as if they had practiced this particular lineup for years.

This flow of the team is important because part of the evaluation is the time that it takes for the CERFP unit to establish the footprint. According to Noyes, the unit is a federal Tier I asset with a required response time of six hours upon receiving the request to active the CERFP.

“Once we get the call, we have six hours to get our Soldiers and Airmen into the armories, ready to move,” said Noyes. “In reality, the type of scenario that we would respond to is like a 9/11 situation, and much like that day, we probably don’t have to do a lot of calling because our Soldiers and Airmen are already showing up at the armories, ready to help in any way.”

Due to this expected time frame for a real situation, the Soldiers and Airmen are timed during the evaluation and are allowed up to two hours and thirty minutes to occupy the footprint, set up each element and begin processing those in need.

Safety First

Although the CERFP is prepared to respond to major disasters, one of the main goals of the training was to not create an emergency themselves. Due to the hot and humid weather of Virginia Beach, proper hydration was repeatedly stressed to all service members present.

“It was almost 90 degrees [on the first day of rehearsal training], and we didn’t have a heat casualty,” said Noyes. “We have Soldiers and Airmen out here doing tasks that they don’t do every day while wearing the gear and equipment, and it’s hot and humid. Even my sergeant major made sure I was drinking enough water – its basic Soldier and Airmen care.”

Angela Shabazz-Wiggins, a paramedic with Tidewater Medical Transport, was part of a contracted medical transportation team that stayed on site with the CERFP in the event of an emergency. The team was prepared to treat anyone involved in the exercise and evaluation for dehydration and over exertion.

“We were prepared to handle anything that comes at us, but Soldiers and Airmen really took care of themselves and each other,” said Shabazz-Wiggins. She was also part of the team present at another training event for this evaluation at Fort Pickett, Va., earlier this year.

“Despite the weather and any other obstacles, everyone was really careful about what they were doing, so we didn’t have any major accidents,” she added.

One way that the CERFP tackles the risk of dehydration is by requiring the Soldiers and Airmen to wear the physical training gear underneath their chemical suits. Issued extra sets of their respective branch’s physical training uniform, this provides the leadership with several advantages when activated for a real world situation, said Plude.

“When you put the chemical suit on, whether it’s for fifteen minutes or two hours, you’re going to be drenched in sweat,” explained Plude. “The PT uniform provides a little more comfort for them. Everything that goes down range in a real situation will be destroyed, so it’s also cheaper for us to toss out the PT uniforms than the Army Combat Uniform.”

One of the most important reasons for the wear of the PT uniform is that it provides a way for leaders to identify who has been designated to wear a chemical suit that day, he added.

“It’s easier to spot check [the Soldiers and Airmen] and to make sure that they are drinking water or even just to ask if they are okay,” said Plude.

Final Rehearsals

The unit spent the days before the external evaluation to run through disaster scenarios as one combined team. Using a theme of “crawl, walk, run,” the CERFP started the practice portion of the exercise on Tuesday, May 12, 2015, by covering basic refresher training with the subject matter experts overseeing the instructional time and providing any additional guidance.

Each morning, the CERFP mustered in a parking lot on Camp Pendleton to receive their safety briefings and training objectives of the day. The Soldiers and Airmen then carefully timed their movements to the Virginia Beach Fire and EMS Training Center.

On Wednesday, May 13, 2015, the service members were joined by 50 role players at the site to assist the unit with the “walk” phase of the training exercise. Covered in makeup to represent different injuries and chocolate syrup rubbed into their clothing to match the grimy scene, the actors were given instructions on how to communicate their symptoms in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Some were sprawled across a slab of concrete, acting as an unconscious casualty, while others were able to roam the rubble with their injuries, either working with those in the search and extraction teams or creating additional issues to test the Soldiers and Airmen.

The search and extraction teams, which include Airmen of the FSRT and Soldiers from the 276th Engineer Battalion and 237th Engineer Company, located and escorted victims out of the disaster site to the 229th Chemical Company’s decontamination team, who then separated the rescued personnel by those who could walk on their own or if those who required assistance into tents designated for either case. Those who could move on their own walked through the decontamination tent, disposed of their “contaminated” clothing, and were escorted to mass casualty medical triage and treatment team. Others too wounded to walk were carried into a tent via a litter, placed on a rolling platform and received assistance with the decontamination process before being transferred to the medical team, manned by the 192nd Medical Group. The victims received simulated medical treatment before being released to play a new role in the next training scenario.

On Thursday, May 14, 2015, the unit completed their “run” day with a dress rehearsal of the evaluation that included 75 role players for the training missions.