By Maj. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 31, 2011
CAMP ATTERBURY, IND. -- A new disaster-recovery team from the Kentucky Air National Guard successfully demonstrated its urban-response capabilities for the first time last week during a major homeland-defense exercise held in Southern Indiana.
The U.S. Army North exercise, called Vibrant Response 12, tested the ability of more than 7,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Defense Department civilians to respond to the detonation of a radiological device in a major U.S. city while providing a broad range of assistance to civil authorities, said Capt. Jason Rhodes, commander of the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Communications Squadron.
A key component of that response was the Kentucky Air Guard's Fatality Search and Recovery Team, one of 17 such teams stood up across the Air National Guard late last year to locate and recover the remains of victims killed in hostile action or natural disasters, Rhodes said. Team members have special training and equipment that allow them to operate in a broad spectrum of dangerous environments, including those contaminated by nuclear, biological or chemical agents.
"This is a unique capability that only the Air National Guard has, and it's also an essential capability," said Rhodes, who served as OIC of the Kentucky team during Vibrant Response. "Civilian authorities such as local coroners are likely to be overwhelmed in the event of a scenario like this attack, but the Air Guard's Fatality Search and Recovery Teams can deploy the resources necessary to recover victims quickly, with dignity and respect. It's the kind of capability the American people expect from their disaster-response forces."
Vibrant Response was staged at the Indiana National Guard's Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex near Camp Atterbury, Ind., a unique facility created on the grounds of a former mental hospital. It features a robust assortment of training environments, including collapsed buildings and structures that can be set ablaze on command.
"Muscatatuck is a pretty impressive facility," Rhodes said. "The disaster area has spouting flames, clouds of smoke, burning cars and buildings that have been reduced to piles of rubble. It's about as realistic as you can get."
It was in this environment that the Fatality Search and Recovery Team worked to extract casualties from Aug. 15 to 18, said Master Sgt. Krista Lindsey, NCOIC of the team. Because the disaster area was contaminated with simulated radiation, team members had to wear heavy protective gear from head to toe and process through a decontamination station prior to leaving the "hot zone" with casualties, she said.
While the protective gear includes a battery-operated air purification system, the suits themselves are not ventilated, and ambient temperatures during the exercise hovered in the mid-90s, Rhodes said, requiring careful management of work-rest cycles.
"By the time they finished donning their suits, our team members had about 20 minutes to work," he said." So that's 20 minutes to get into the hot zone, do what you need to do, and come back out. The warmer it is, the longer it takes to recover remains. High temperatures make for a very time-consuming process."
Senior Airman Megan Cuebas, one of seven Kentucky Air Guardsmen on the team, said the recovery process went extremely well, despite the heat and the fact that team members had just received the suits a few days before the exercise.
"We had never trained with the suits before, but we were able to don and doff them pretty quickly, and everyone was able to operate in them," she said. "We also kept a close eye on each other, and no one fell out from heat exhaustion."
Another challenge was the presence of simulated news media and ambulatory survivors, courtesy of more than 150 actors who were hired to add a dose of unpredictable realism to the scenario, Cuebas noted.
"We saw blankets hanging out of windows with messages from citizens asking for help, and survivors were coming up to us and yelling at our convoy as we drove in," she said. "We've trained before on the search-and-recovery aspect of our mission, but I never thought about what it would be like to deal with the other things that go along with this type of operation, like civilians trying to get help from you, or the news media putting cameras in your face."
"This exercise really gave us a new realization of what we should expect in a real-world situation: We're going to have news media and the civilian community watching us while we perform our mission, and some of those civilians are going to want and need help."
For Cuebas and her Air Guard teammates, that kind of awareness may be the most valuable lesson learned during Vibrant Response.
"I feel like this training gave us a real foothold on exactly what our purpose is with respect to homeland defense, what kinds of people and agencies we might need to work with, and how intense it can get," she said. "I know this scenario gave me an extra sense of purpose outside our normal military mission. If we can execute well in this kind of homeland-defense mission, I know we can feel real good about ourselves at the end of the day."
The Kentucky Air Guard's Fatality Search and Recovery Team was augmented during the exercise with nine FSRT members from Air Guard units in Puerto Rico and Colorado.