By Col. Richard Goldenberg, New York National GuardSeptember 10, 2019
ORISKANY, N.Y. - A National Guard disaster response force of more than 600 National Guard members from New York and New Jersey came together to train and rehearse their readiness to respond to Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear incidents September 6-8.
The New York National Guard's Homeland Response Force (HRF) is one of ten established by the Department of Defense to serve as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Consequence Management Response force.
The response force is comprised of units from across the New York and New Jersey National Guard. The units include:
• The 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Headquarters, based in Syracuse, N.Y. to provide command and control for the response forces, providing expandability;
• Air National Guard communications personnel from the 105th Airlift Wing, based in Newburgh, N.Y. and the 107th Attack Wing, based in Niagara Falls, N.Y., providing Joint Incident Site Communications Capability (JISCC);
• New Jersey Army National Guard Soldiers from the 154th Quartermaster Company from New Egypt, N.Y. and 50th Chemical Company from Somerset, N.Y., providing a Casualty Assistance and Security Element (CASE);
• A New York CBRN response task force headquarters from the 153nd Brigade Engineer Battalion command and staff, based in Buffalo, N.Y.;
• Decontamination Element personnel from the 642nd Support Battalion, based in Rochester, N.Y.;
• Search and Extraction Element Soldiers from B Company, 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion, based at Lockport, N.Y.;
• A medical triage element from the Airman of the 105th Airlift Wing, based in Newburgh, N.Y.;
• A Fatality Search and Recovery Team (FSRT) comprised of Airmen of the 107th Attack Wing, based in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
The task force began training earlier this year for the response mission and will undergo an external evaluation in November.
Like every other military training task, the linchpin for the new HRF Soldiers is mastering individual skills, working as a team and then accomplishing the collective training said Lt. Col. Joseph Boler, the exercise deputy director from Army North, the external evaluation team.
"These guys will be just fine," Boler said. "They'll crawl, walk and run and be ready for validation."
The Homeland Response Force prepares for search and extraction of disaster victims, incident site security, decontamination, medical treatment and command and control of the mission.
For the HRF command post, the 27th Infantry Brigade is ready to take on the new challenges to command and control these elements, said Col. Charlesworth, the brigade commander.
"For us, we know operations and command and control," Charlesworth said, noting the summer completion of a warfighter command post-exercise for the staff. "We're just adapting to this new environment to make sure we're ready."
The learning curve for the new units has been fast and steep said Warrant Officer George, an ammunition officer from the 642nd Aviation Support Battalion now supervising elements of the decontamination team.
"This is a big difference for everyone," George said, "but we're getting there. This training (at Oriskany) has been a great boost."
The weekend training was an opportunity to bring all the various elements together for collective training, and see how the distinct elements come together.
"We definitely need this hands-on training," said Spc. Zachary Elliott, part of the decontamination line from the 642nd Aviation Support Battalion. "This is how we learn. PowerPoint is good to learn, but hands-on like this is way better."
The HRF is responsible for support to New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, aligned with the Federal Emergency Management Agency Region II. The troops provide a link between state and federal CBRN response efforts.
The team trains under Defense Department guidelines to respond within a 6-12 hour window to local authorities after a CBRN or other hazardous materials incident requiring assistance from federal military resources.
For many of the Soldiers new to the mission of CBRN response, the training is demanding but offers new challenges and opportunities.
Staff Sgt. Gene Whitaker is a team leader in the search and extraction team, a horizontal engineer with Bravo Company, 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion. Whitaker, who owns a construction company in his civilian career, likens the search and extraction mission to deconstructing a work site.
"Our Soldiers go in, assess the site and begin combing over the entire location to bring out casualties," Whitaker said, acknowledging the demands of doing so in a CBRN environment. "For a guy like me that was used to simply pushing dirt, this is really new ground."
More important than learning the tasks and preparing for the CBRN conditions is practicing the physically demanding tasks to move casualties on and off litters, conduct patient and personal decontamination all while wearing the protective clothing and gear, said Pfc. Sarah Cecere, another decontamination member from the 642nd Aviation Support Battalion.
"This gives us a good sense of what we could walk into," Cecere said.
The timeline to train and prepare for validation is short, Boler said, but the unit has already completed a number of helpful milestones.
"This is the second time I have done this training," Cecere said. "The last time was in Ohio (during Vigilant Guard)."
From individual training to qualify Soldiers at unit armories to command post exercises to prepare staffs in July, to the deployment of CBRN response elements to support the Vigilant Guard response exercise in Ohio in August, this full-scale exercise brings the entire team together to sharpen skills and work collectively, said Luis Merchado, a medical team observer controller trainer from US Army North.
"The big training benefit is bringing the entire team together, working out the kinks and learning from each other," Merchado said.