CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- About 225 Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Belgian military explosive ordnance disposal technicians, along with bomb squads from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, are exchanging tactics, techniques and procedures during the Raven's Challenge XI exercise here.

Raven's Challenge is an international, full-scale, live-fire, counter-improvised explosive device interoperability exercise that presents participating military EOD and civilian public safety bomb squad units with the opportunity to coalesce as a team, develop a plan and respond to an IED problem set, said John Simpson, Raven's Challenge exercise program manager.

The exercise started as a regional exercise more than a decade ago, but it grew to a joint, international program with the support of the Army and is now conducted in five locations throughout the year. Previous exercises this year have been held at Pinal Airpark in Marana, Arizona; Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana; Camp Dawson in West Virginia; and Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

IMPORTANCE OF INTEROPERABILITY

"With the threats that we're seeing overseas and … if we have to respond to a problem stateside and deal with a threat on our own soil, it's important to get that interoperability with the public safety bomb squads and the other federal agencies," said Army Col. David Schmitt, the Army's adaptive counter-IED/EOD solutions division chief. He cited the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration as the key federal agencies.

"This is a mobile kind of training event we can reproduce in multiple locations to give more units and more bomb squads opportunities, so that's a chance for even more interoperability," he added.

Raven's Challenge IX is designed to establish a learning environment for the EOD technicians to exercise counter-IED related emergency response procedures and multiple-agency interoperability. It also focuses on goals such as EOD/public safety bomb squad interoperability in a realistic domestic tactical environment, Simpson said.

The training also provides the blended teams a non-evaluation training environment with the chance to conduct realistic scenarios such as a hostage scenario, a device attached to an unmanned system, a device found during an area sweep, an aircraft with a device in the baggage area and improvised mortars located on rooftops and in vehicles.

"The venue that this exercise provides is an amazing venue, because they get to do all of these different scenarios and use all these different techniques they wouldn't be able to do otherwise at their home base," Schmitt said.

"Here, they can use all of their energetic tools and work in low light with night-vision goggles," he continued. "That level of work and detail is beyond the level of any one small organization, so providing the venue, we get both the interoperability piece because we bring everybody together, but also the unique skill sets and techniques they would not normally be able to do on their own."

UNIQUE TRAINING ENVIRONMENT

"We don't have the resources to be able to do this kind of training or even to bring it to a joint level," said Air Force Airman 1st Class Will Ortiz from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. "So knowing the intel threat is actually out there and to come and demonstrate and try some of the techniques here -- to see what actually works and doesn't work without just having to guess -- it's invaluable."

Army Spc. Seth Hamilton, an EOD technician from Fort Bliss, Texas, said not receiving the training he gets during Raven's Challenge is like "sending an infantryman to Afghanistan without ever having him shoot a rifle."

"You have to do this kind of training," he added. "Without it, you're useless. You're going to show up and not know what you're doing, so it's huge."

Army Staff Sgt. Sean Mattes, also an EOD technician from Fort Bliss, said he's worked with the Air Force multiple times downrange and in training events stateside. He said getting to use the tools in live events has helped to build confidence in their tools.

"This was the first time in training where I was able to use live tools with a live crew, so that is huge in building confidence with the tools. That is the most important thing you can do," he said. "Even if you are incredibly good with the tool, but you have no confidence in it or know how to use it really well, if you have no confidence in it, it's pointless. So getting here, doing this, building the confidence is key."

SHARING INFORMATION

Another goal is having the combined teams performing crosstalk on their core competencies and sharing tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTPs.

Belgian army 1st Sgt. Maj. Nele Van Keer was on a team with three army Belgian team members and three airmen from Spangdahlem Air Base. The Belgians aren't stationed together, but will be deploying together this fall to Afghanistan for the first time as a team. They will be deploying to a location where one of the Belgians and one of the Spangdahlem airmen had already been stationed previously.

"The interoperability is very important, because the other countries, they work in other war zones, and they know other stuff we don't because we haven't gone there before," Van Keer said. "We don't know all the TTPs over there. We need to talk so we have more skills and more knowledge."

"We're talking and comparing stories and see if we had the same experiences," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Brook Hamilton, EOD team leader from Spangdahlem. "We're all in the same career field and operate very similarly. We just use different types of tools. We know how to work together. At the end of the day, the mission is about getting people home alive, and once you get that interoperability down, it makes it a lot easier. Training like this is crucial."

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Adam Bradach, an EOD technician at Camp Pendleton, said learning about the civilian law enforcement TTPs was beneficial during the exercise -- such as learning about their tools and procedures on how they would handle a call if they found unexploded ordnance -- a World War II souvenir, for example.

Al Carbonara, who's been with the Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad for 21 years, said working with military EOD technicians is something that can come up for him at home. "If we find military ordnance, we're going to go out and take a look at it first," he explained. "If we can deal with it, we deal with it. If not, we're going to call our military counterparts."

He said the police get calls to check out suspicious packages, perform sweeps for big events and deal with fireworks, which are illegal in California. One of his co-workers is a former Marine.

Carbonara said exercises like Raven's Challenge are vital, because the participants learn from each other. "We come across military ordnance, and these guys may have picked up tricks over there, maybe searching houses or things over there we can use over here, because they are in different operating environments. Basically it's the same, but fine-tuning our skills.

With tight budgets and the need for re-certifications and training, it's nice to work with guys who have been in the job for a long time and bounce stuff off each other and see what works and what doesn't work. This kind of cooperation and learning -- this is what we need," he said.