JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -Six hundred New York and New Jersey National Guard Soldiers and Airmen demonstrated during a two-day training exercise Nov. 15-16 that they're ready to handle disasters.
The Guard members from New York and New Jersey are part of a regional disaster response force trained to respond to a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) incident in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region II.
Known as a Homeland Response Force (HRF), the task force is one of 10 established by the Defense Department to assist civilian responders during a CBRN incident.
"It's really impressive to see the entire thing all in one place," said Army Spc. Renee Rivas, a water-purification New Jersey Army National Guard Soldier assigned to the 154th Quartermaster Company who performed security roles at the site. "This is so much bigger when you see it all together."
HRF elements come from a variety of Army and Air National Guard units in New York and New Jersey.
The Soldiers and Airmen receive specialized training in addition to their traditional unit readiness responsibilities to operate in a CBRN environment. The troops train to search and extract disaster victims, provide security, decontamination, medical triage and treatment and command and control of the mission.
They are often doing things very different from their regular military job, said Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Meyer, a medical readiness non-commissioned officer for the 642nd Support Battalion's decontamination team.
The 642nd Support Battalion is an aviation maintenance unit, filled with Soldiers who are more skilled at helicopter engine and transmission repairs than operating decontamination stations, she said.
"We have lots of mechanics out here, admin Soldiers, even cooks supporting the mission," Meyer said, "but it has all come together."
The ramp-up from individual to collective training was a challenge for the entire force, said Army Col. Robert Charlesworth, HRF commander and commander of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
"We have combat engineer units, for instance, that are doing urban search and rescue, which is something that they're not ordinarily accustomed to doing," he said.
"Those are additional skill sets that they have to train very hard on, and additional professional certifications that they have to earn to be certified in those functions. … The challenge before the event happens is training the organization to take on those additional mission sets that they wouldn't normally be training on if they were singularly focused on warfighting," Charlesworth said.
The HRF is designed to be the first military response to local authorities after a CBRN event in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The elements of the FEMA Region II HRF Team began preparing for this validation event six months ago. Typically, National Guard units have a year to conduct individual and section training before coming together for full-scale training and evaluation.
The entire HRF element completed its collective training at the beginning of September.
Observe controllers from U.S. Army North and National Guard Bureau praised the team for its progress.
"There really are no war-stoppers here," said Luis Merchado, the observer-controller for the medical triage element. "The train-up in September and the run-through here really paid off. They're ready for this."
The team came together quickly and efficiently, said Army Lt. Col. William Snyder, commander of the 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion and commander of the CBRN response force element.
His headquarters provides command and control, but only the battalion's engineer company serves in the CBRN response force. Others come from different National Guard units in New York or New Jersey.
"The decon line, the engineers, security element, medical and others are all doing really well," Snyder said. "They've shown a great learning curve and have been able to work together, side by side, seamlessly."
The core of each HRF is this CBRN capability, augmented with a higher headquarters command-and-control element provided by the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Syracuse, N.Y.
This allows for the force to expand as an incident may require, plugging in additional CBRN elements from other National Guard states as necessary, Charlesworth said.
"It's basically the same core competencies of managing resources and, most importantly, managing information so that we're able to deliver the right kind of support and resource to the right place," he said.
"I think the biggest challenge is dealing with the emotional aspect if something like this were to happen," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Sterling, the HRF battle staff Non-Commissioned Officer at the 27th Infantry Brigade command post. "Here, we all understand it's all simulated, but when it comes down to a real event happening, there's going to be a lot more emotion."
Units that completed the HRF training include:
--The 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Headquarters, based in Syracuse, N.Y., to provide command and control.
--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 communications support.
--New Jersey Army National Guard Soldiers from the 154th Quartermaster Company from New Egypt, N.J, and 50th Chemical Company from Somerset, N.J., providing a Casualty Assistance and Security Element (CASE).
--A New York Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear 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.