EAST AMHERST, N.Y. — After a year and a half hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 200 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from New York and New Jersey trained together to respond to Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear incidents April 16-17.
The members of the FEMA Region II Homeland Response Force (HRF) rescue victims and provide security, decontamination, medical treatment and command and control in support of first responders during disasters.
The team trained on the grounds of A. J. Jureck American Legion Post 1672 and the neighboring Erie County Fire Center.
The last time they were able to practice as a whole unit was four months before the coronavirus hit the United States. Across the country in 2020, National Guard units like those that make up the Region II HRF saw their regular training schedules sidelined by the demands of massive COVID response missions and limitations on in-person training to prevent the spread of the virus.
But for two days, members of the HRF’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Task Force got to dust off their equipment and refresh their skills in a collective training exercise focused on operating as a team.
In a typical year, elements of the task force would have dedicated time in their normal training schedules to reinforcing skills for the HRF mission and would have taken part in two collective training events.
“Normally, when we come in, the longest it’s been for anybody is six months and it comes right back. But after not doing that for almost two years, it’s pretty tough,” said Army Capt. Christopher Schrader, commander of the task force’s search and extraction element.
Those training events would traditionally be overseen by external evaluators grading specific tasks and timing. But Army Lt. Col. William Snyder, commander of the CBRN Task Force, said he wanted this event to be built on lower-stress conditions, with a goal of rebuilding cohesion. So the training was designed and evaluated internally by the task force.
“We’re taking today as a crawl,” Snyder said on the first day of training.
After the setup of more than a dozen tents and trailers on Day One, most of the task force practiced ongoing command and control, support operations, and the decontamination and treatment of casualties and HRF personnel. Civilian role players acted as wounded people evacuated from the site of an explosion.
For the 107th Attack Wing's Fatality Search and Recovery Team (FSRT), it marked a return to collective training after the one-year anniversary of New York’s COVID response. The Air Guardsmen of the FSRT had one of the toughest roles of the COVID mission, helping New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner remove the remains of people who died from the disease.
“There was a certain bond that was created when everybody was in New York doing something that’s really never been done before,” said Capt. Shawn Lavin, leader of the FSRT.
At the training, FSRT members practiced dealing not only with the remains of people but doing so under CBRN conditions.
“It was just really good to see again how serious they take their job but, then again, see them really doing the nuanced stuff that we probably didn’t do in New York City,” Lavin said.
In most HRF collective training events, the role of civil support teams – specialized units that train full-time, year-round to be the first into a disaster zone – is played by notional characters and made-up information. In this exercise, the CBRN Task Force was joined by the real 2nd Civil Support Team, based out of Scotia, New York.
“I’ve been on the CST for 12 years. I only remember one other time where we actually trained within the HRF exercise,” said Air Force Maj. Ron McCarthy, medical operations officer for the 2nd CST.
“We bring down all sorts of chemical, radiological, and analytical equipment to detect what’s down there. We also have our recon team that can also go down there and takes samples,” explained Army Capt. Salvatore Scannapieco, nuclear medical science officer for the 2nd CST.
The CST inspected a mock incident site at a fire training center and reported findings to the task force’s search and extraction and command and control elements, for each to be better-informed about the kinds of hazards they could be dealing with.
Every member of the task force’s search and extraction element, provided by Bravo Company of the 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion based in Lockport, New York, goes through certification at the Urban Search and Rescue Extractor course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
During training on shoring techniques, breaching and breaking obstacles, lifting and hauling materials, disaster site reconnaissance, and rescue and evacuation of casualties, the search and extraction members were mentored by Ronnie Sallee, a retired firefighter who responded to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He now works as a civilian contractor, sharing his expertise in search and extraction with HRFs all across the country.
"Gravity is a building's worst nightmare. Even from the time they build it, it's trying to come down,” Sallee taught the S&E members. He watched as they measured buildings, cut materials, and built braces to shore up structures – in plain combat uniforms on Day One, and in full protective suits, gloves, and masks on Day Two.
“I'm telling you, I'm impressed with these guys," Salee said.
The S&E members brought valuable experience to the training site from civilian careers as general contractors and electricians and personal hobbies like rock climbing. The S&E element’s senior noncommissioned officer, 1st Sgt. Stephen Campbell brought knowledge of rope rescue from his civilian job as a member of the New York State Parks Police high angle rescue teams.
“It’s about finesse, not muscle,” Campbell told his Soldiers while practicing ascents and descents on a five-story building.
The next collective training event for the HRF and the CBRN Task Force is in November. They’ll travel to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst for a larger-scale evaluation. Until then, they’ll refine their skills and procedures during drill weekends and annual training.