34th CERFP participates in multi-state disaster exercise

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen provide search and extraction, decontamination and medical support July 10, 2019, as part of Operation Highball, a multi-state special focus exercise at the River Road Training Site in New Castle, Delaware. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

NEW CASTLE, Del. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen provided search and extraction, decontamination and medical support during Operation Highball, a multi-state special focus exercise July 9-12, 2019, at the River Road Training Site in New Castle, Delaware.

The Soldiers and Airmen are assigned to the Richmond-based 34th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Package, one of several agencies participating in the multi-day disaster exercise.

Operation Highball simulated the derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals in a populated area, causing a significant number of casualties as well as a structure collapse. Teaming with members of the Delaware and Pennsylvania National Guards and several civilian agencies, the CERFP went to work.

Role players acted as civilian survivors with various injuries, some able to walk and some non-ambulatory. The CERFP’s search and extraction team secured the scene and helped rescue the survivors from the rubble pile. After that, they were triaged and decontaminated before being treated for their injuries.

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

Before the full-scale operation, the CERFP incorporated movement to the disaster area from Virginia as part of the exercise. Some of the team convoyed from the Richmond area, while others flew to the scene. Those movements made this operation unique, according to Capt. Andrew J. Czaplicki, the 34th CERFP’s deputy commander.

“We’ve done about 400 miles of movement before, which is usually about a six to eight hour drive. We’ve done those before, but we’ve intentionally avoided major cities and population centers,” explained Czaplicki. “This time we intentionally drove through D.C. and we intentionally drove around Baltimore. Doing that stressed upon our junior leaders the importance of maintaining their military convoy and their serials and their radio communications.”

Being able to have some of the CERFP’s team members fly also provided a different experience.

“We also wanted to partner with Delaware Air National Guard and conduct a personnel airlift,” said Czaplicki. “So, a C-130 Hercules from the 166th Airlift Wing flew 50 Soldiers from Rocky Mount all the way up to New Castle. It was interesting to see how that process works, and also see how fast it would mobilize our people. It cut their drive time from eight hours down to one. It was huge for us to get boots on ground quickly.”

Taking their capabilities on the road in a tactical manner was important for the unit’s readiness, said Col. Todd Hubbard, the Virginia National Guard’s chief of operations.

“I think it’s really important that we’re able to deploy to another state and work with them in this capacity,” said Hubbard. “A lot of times our training is inside Virginia so being able to network with the other states like Pennsylvania and Delaware to do an exercise like this enhances our training and gives our Soldiers a broader experience.”

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

One of the challenges the CERFP faced during the main two days of the exercise was Delaware’s weather. Soldiers, Airmen and civilians alike endured extreme heat and humidity, adding another element to the operation, but one the CERFP was able to meet head-on.

“The weather was definitely a factor we had to take under consideration. The extreme heat and the humidity, and the type of work we were doing, it was a leadership challenge,” said Czaplicki. “Generally I think we did pretty good.”

Despite the challenges of travel and weather, Czaplicki was proud of how his team responded to the mission, and stressed the importance of this type of exercise.

“I want our Soldiers and Airmen to truly understand that we are a national asset, that we will be required to pick up and go, and it won’t just be to Virginia or to Pennsylvania,” stressed Czaplicki. “It’ll be someplace they’ve never been before. The take-home point there is that they understand that they’re a national asset, that we will go places.

“It was important for this exercise in particular to test that, and experience some new challenges with a different environment, a different road network, a different headquarters to fall under. We did those things.”

Just because Operation Highball was a success doesn’t mean the CERFP’s mission is complete. Next year, the unit will go through their mission confirmation assessment, including a formal evaluated deployment readiness exercise as well as an external evaluation provided by the U.S. Northern Command and a joint interagency evaluation team.

“This was our last chance to fix some things, try out some new things, before we really start locking down the processes,” said Czaplicki. “It was fun, we were able to explore and try new things, but ultimately this was the last chance before we really get into it.”

The CERFP is capable of providing support to first responders and civil authorities after a chemical, biological or nuclear incident. The team includes both Army and Air National Guard units from Petersburg, West Point, Rocky Mount and Langley Air Force Base, as well as Airmen from the Washington, D.C. National Guard. 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.

The CERFP is unique in that it is a task force that includes elements from multiple different units rather than one specific unit:

  • Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the Richmond-based Joint Force Headquarters – Virginia 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 from 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.
  • The Airmen assigned to the Washington, D.C. National Guard’s 113th Force Support Squadron operate as a fatality search and recovery team.

If an incident requiring CERFP support occurs, Soldiers and Airmen are alerted through the Virginia Guard Joint Operations Center and mobilized on state active duty. If the incident is located within Virginia they would proceed to the incident site and fall under the control of the incident commander. If the incident is located outside of Virginia, Joint Force Headquarters – Virginia would coordinate with the receiving state under the terms agreed to in the Emergency Mutual Aid Compact.

Virginia’s CERFP was authorized in June 2006. There are currently 27 CERFP teams available nationwide with three in FEMA Region 3 in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.