DUNBAR, W.Va. - The West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) joined forces with more than 20 local, state and federal agencies for an all-day search-and-rescue training exercise on the Kanawha River Nov. 15.

More than 150 first responders and volunteers took part in the training, gaining critical knowledge and hands-on experience with emergency response command-and-control coordination, boat rescues, dive team rescues and helicopter hoist operations.

"The size and scope of this exercise, with so many different agencies playing important roles from planning to execution, makes it one of the largest such exercises in the history of West Virginia," stated U.S. Army Lt. Col. Wally Hatfield, chief for the West Virginia Swift Water Rescue Team. "We held a similar exercise last year and it was much smaller. Once it was announced this year, interest shot through the roof and we were almost overwhelmed with the enthusiasm of responders to participate."

"This event shows unequivocally that this type of joint-agency training is highly desired," he added.

The full-scale exercise was based on a disaster scenario involving the mock collision of two large river vessels on the Kanawha River, an industrial barge and a large civilian stern-wheeler pleasure craft, resulting in approximately 30 victims and casualties requiring rescue and medical treatment or recovery. Responders and volunteers broke into teams focused on their unique specialties.

Members of the Charleston Fire Department and Charleston Police Department on their respective forces dive teams conducted underwater operations locating sunken mannequins in the murky waters of the Kanawha, then brought those mannequins to the surface for recovery.

Members of the West Virginia Swift Water Rescue Team, (WVSWRT) comprised of members of the WVNG and the Clendenin and Glasgow, West Virginia volunteer fire departments, along with other local and state-wide first responder agencies, located and retrieved mannequins from the riverbanks.

WVSWRT responders and volunteers also participated in helicopter hoist operations, being lifted from the chilly waters of the Kanawha River by a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter operated by the West Virginia Army National Guard's Company C, 1-150th Assault Battalion.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Huntington provided overall operational security and safety for the exercise, and provided incident command staff and exercise planning support.

According to Lt. Cmdr. Rob Reinhart, executive officer of the unit, this was the first time the U.S. Coast Guard had participated in such an inclusive exercise.

"This was a tremendous opportunity for us to engage with so many different agencies and really exemplifies our, 'one team, one fight' approach to these type of real-world operations," he said. "All responders coming together to manage an incident from one perspective is critical, and this exercise goes a long way to helping make that happen."

The exercise also marked the first time that the U.S. Coast Guard and the West Virginia National Guard were afforded an opportunity to work side by side in a non-emergency event in the state.

Once mannequins were recovered by the teams, they were delivered to a centralized medical staging area where members of the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority (KCEAA) conducted decontamination and medical triage operations before mock dispatching the "victims" to appropriate medical facilities.

The last group of participants were located at the Incident Command Post (ICP) and maintained overall operational control and communications and ensured the exercise was following proper National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Control System (ICS) protocols required for all Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) accredited exercises.

"From a management standpoint, the exercise was intense," stated Shana Clendenin, watch center supervisor for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. "From initial notification that the mock-incident happened, to staging of assets including equipment and personnel, to deployment of teams, to recovery and triage of victims, the incident command team worked diligently to make sure everyone was in the proper place doing the proper thing to manage the situation correctly. With so many moving pieces, and over such a long operational period, it was a challenge. But one that I think everyone met professionally and enthusiastically."

Beginning at 8 a.m. and concluding well after dark, the exercise spanned the entire day and included nighttime operations to give responders valuable experience in low-light and no-light conditions.

After more than 12 hours on the river, responders left the exercise tired, a bit chilled, but excited and already ready for next year.

"We could not have asked for a better training event," said Hatfield. "I can't begin to thank all those who helped plan and execute this valuable and realistic exercise. From the growth we saw between this event last year and this year, the sky is the limit on how important an annual training like this can become and help us be better prepared to assist the citizens of West Virginia when they need us."

Agencies participating in the exercise included Dunbar Police, Dunbar Fire, Charleston Police, Charleston Fire, Wheeling Fire, Saint Albans Police, Saint Albans Fire, Nitro Police, Nitro Fire, South Charleston Police, South Charleston Fire, Dunbar Public Works, the Kanawha/Putnam Emergency Planning Committee, Metro 911, West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Kanawha County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority, United States Coast Guard, West Virginia Army National Guard, Clendenin Fire, and Glasgow Fire.