CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. (Aug. 6, 2013) -- There are only three active-duty units in the United States who have a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear-focused mission, and they must be confirmed ready to execute that mission each year. They do this at Vibrant Response.
In the exercise scenario, nuclear devices level two Ohio cities, turning them into smoking, radioactive rubble. Businesses, homes and roads are destroyed. Thousands of people are dead or injured, and the rest are panicked and frantic for information.
In the aftermath, thousands of military service members, civilian emergency responders and local, state and national agencies practice their response to such a situation.
The exercise, which has been held annually since 2008, takes place at various locations in southern Indiana, primarily at Camp Atterbury and Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.
"At Muscatatuck, objects are in trees, cars are on fire. There are about 200 role-playing civilians made up to look like they have bones protruding or severe head wounds, plus we've got 350 manikins buried in garages," said Kevin Kirmse, the senior exercise planner for U.S. Army North (Fifth Army), which conducts the exercise under the direction of U.S. Northern Command.
The largest of the three units being trained, with about 5,400 Soldiers, is the Defense Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosive Reactionary Force, or DCRF. The other two units, with about 1,600 Soldiers each, are the Alpha and Bravo teams of the Command and Control Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Response Element, known as C2CRE.
In the event of a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear, referred to as CBRN, incident, the DCRF would be the reactionary force. As the first unit called, it would be on location within 48 hours. The C2CRE teams serve as contingency forces, and they would be on-site within 96 hours.
Being confirmed enables the DCRF and C2CRE units to assume command of their missions Oct. 1. The units are evaluated on about 200 tasks, including search and rescue, medical evacuations, engineering, route clearance and airlift operations. The Secretary of Defense makes the final determination on confirmation, following recommendations by U.S. Army Northern Command and U.S. Army North.
Vibrant Response is vital for the CBRN units, Kirmse said.
Among other things, commanders of the units may have to determine how to deal with 110 contaminated corpses with both safety and sensitivity. It is a complicated mission that features many bizarre challenges, Kirmse noted.
"An engineer may have about a mile of debris that needs to be cleared, so he's doing it with heavy equipment," he said. "Then a little old lady on the side of the road says, 'My husband's in there.' Now you're working with a shovel."
Or, Kirmse continued, "You might have farmer Smith come along with five people in the back of his pickup. If the unit doesn't make sure the passengers have been decontaminated, and one of them ends up having a contamination tag, now everybody's contaminated."
Vibrant Response features about 140 live events such as these, plus another 400 simulated ones. The exercise includes about 5,700 participants from 27 states and territories.
First Army Soldiers are serving as observer controller/trainers for the exercise, watching, evaluating and helping improve the CBRN units' actions and procedures. Providing feedback helps the Soldiers being trained hone their skills and helps the unit achieve its confirmation.
Beginning Aug. 8, the Soldiers will be joined by personnel from several civilian agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the state of Ohio.
Working with those agencies can be a challenge for the military units, at least at first. While many Soldiers today have been in combat overseas, that experience doesn't necessarily translate into proficiency with a mass casualty situation at home.
"This mission is very different than what most of these guys have ever done," said Sgt. Maj. Christopher Frediani, the operations sergeant major for U.S. Army North Task Force 51, which is being evaluated during Vibrant Response. "The Task Force is being evaluated on our ability to respond to a CBRN event, to prevent further suffering, to help mitigate the situation, and to assist local authorities. By no means are we in the lead."
To make the exercise a success, Fredianai said, the unit must "maintain communication and give clear and concise orders to our subordinate units so they can support the local authorities and assist in alleviating the suffering."
Kirmse stressed the cooperation required to make Vibrant Response a success. "It's a huge team effort to do all this," he said. "Muscatatuck, Atterbury, U.S. Army North, NORTHCOM, the Indiana National Guard, First Army, and Forces Command are all great partners in this. The state of Indiana helped us tremendously."
Vibrant Response will continue through Aug. 23.