By Sgt. Christopher HernandezDecember 21, 2018
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. - Roaring down a concrete road not far from the base of the Organ Mountains, two M1142 Tactical Fire Fighting Trucks hastily position themselves away from the downed helicopter set ablaze. The roof turrets from each truck discharge streams of pressurized water onto the flames, and firefighters adorned in structural bunker gear and self-contained breathing apparatuses assemble around the fiery aircraft. These firefighters move expediently to their task, suppressing the flames of the aircraft whilst transporting the casualties away from the wreckage.
This wasn't a real-life event, but it has been designed to replicate one as part of the Michigan Army National Guard and Connecticut Army National Guard firefighter units' mobilization validation exercises at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, on Dec. 19. The 1439th/1442nd Firefighter Teams (Alpena, Michigan) and the 256th Engineer Detachment (East Lyme, Connecticut) have been training in sync with each other in preparation for their upcoming deployments.
1st Sgt. Brandon Vaughn, the head Observer Controller/Trainer of this validation exercise from the 157th Infantry Brigade, Camp Atterbury, Indiana, said that he and other Observer Coach Trainers (OC/Ts) have been working with these detachments since last year.
"Our role out here is to assist First Army West and their validation and deployment to increase their readiness in different situations that they normally wouldn't be in," Vaughn said. "They have limited time to do these evaluations, so we have to hit all of the collective tasks under METT-TC (Mission, Enemy, Terrain & Weather, Troops, Time Available, and Civilian Considerations) to ensure that they're trained and proficient under METL (Mission Essential Task Lists)."
To test their adaptive acuity and resolve, the firefighter detachments were immersed in multiple training events with irregular circumstances, expectations and challenges.
"So far, we've been through vehicle fires, did some HAZMAT operations training, aircraft search and rescue operations with the helicopter, and did some rescue operations with a downed Cessna airplane," said Sgt. Scott Clark, 1442nd FT, Alpena, Michigan. "We've rescued victims, put out the fires that are there, mitigated any hazards that are on scene, such as the day before when we had oxygen tanks on board and had to cool those down."
These sporadic conditions of these training events are necessary for the benefit of their readiness, Vaughn said.
"Firefighters tend to get complacent in their training, so since coming out here, we break that up and throw different scenarios at them," Vaughn said. "We put them in different situations like adding oxygen to a fire, putting forth a natural gas leak, and put more 'victim' mannequins in other places so we can make them think what to do and change it up."
This sentiment is echoed by the Michigan and Connecticut National Guard firefighters, drawing upon the necessity of expedient readiness as well.
"Putting the heat of the fire on here puts the pressure on us a little bit," Clark said. "Having the mannequins in there puts the life-safety factor upfront too, as we try to get in there and get the 'victims' out. It makes it realistic by having everything there that we would actually have on a crash...or to the most that a training environment can have."
For Spc. Adam Van Dyke, 1439th FT, Alpena, Michigan, performing these tasks and drills in a new training environment has been conducive to their learning experience.
"It is nice to use different training grounds," said Spc. Adam Van Dyke, 1439th FT, Alpena, Michigan. "We're always used to using the same one back in Michigan, so it's nice seeing a different perspective of different situations that we can face."
One of the most significant advantages to this training week has been the unit cohesion that the three National Guard detachments had fostered with one another.
"It really helps us work together, and we go off each other's skill sets since everyone is better at something than someone else," said Spc. Andrew Sherwood, 256th ED, East Lyme, Connecticut. "Since we've never worked with the Michigan units before, it helps us learn what they are good at, so we can both work together and do better."
Although the OC/Ts have been crucial in guiding these detachments to success, Vaughn attributes a bulk of this process to the firefighters in the White Sands Missile Range.
"The White Sands Fire Department works well with these mobilization units, because without the resources and support of this fire department, we wouldn't be able to do this," Vaughn said. "They assisted with the changing up of scenarios, and provided another set of eyes out here. The White Sands Fire Department training section, the chief, and the captain have all been outstanding in assisting with that. It wouldn't have been the same training if they weren't out here."
Upon the completion of their validation exercises, the 1442nd/1439th Firefighter Teams and the 256th Engineer Detachment are slated to supplement some of their active-duty counterparts in their mobilization to Eastern Europe.