ORISKANY, N.Y., April 4, 2011 -- The recesses of the hanger were dark and smoky, but the mission of the Soldiers, Airmen and civilian first responders was clear - to rescue disaster victims from the city and vehicle wreckage as soon as possible.
That was the scene here April 2, as hundreds of New York National Guardsmen, an urban search and rescue team, and local emergency servicemembers joined forces for a three-day civil/military disaster drill.
The exercise scenario, which involved simulated back-to-back disasters resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties, was designed to test the ability of the Soldiers and Airmen to undertake complex tasks in a hazardous environment, while working with other state and local agencies, said Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, the adjutant general of New York.
"We train with our civilian agency colleagues in advance so that we will understand each others' capabilities in an emergency," Murphy explained.
One of those agencies was the Rome Fire Department, and Deputy Chief Thomas Palinski said he was impressed by New York National Guard's array of capabilities.
"They can do everything we can, and way beyond," he said. "Between the state, county, and military, I didn't realize these resources were available to us, to this extent."
Those capabilities included New York's 2nd Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, or CST, and the New York CERFP, short for CBRNE (Chemical, Biological Radiological, Nuclear, high-yield Explosive) Enhanced Response Force Package. The CST is trained to detect hazardous materials, and the CERFP is trained to extract victims from damaged and contaminated areas.
The forces arrived in the area April 1, on vehicles or aboard a New York Air National Guard C-5A cargo aircraft, and then moved on to the training center. An old hanger at the center, built when it was the Oneida County Airport, served as one of the disaster scenes.
According to the scenario, the cascade of disasters began at a packed Rome, N.Y. hotel, where a bomb caused dozens of casualties. Soon after, a tractor-trailer collided with a train of about 70 chemical tank cars near the hotel, causing it to collapse into a neighboring warehouse packed with bulk pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.
With 258 people dead 1,800 more injured and local hospitals filled with casualties, local emergency crews on the scene called for federal assistance. The hanger was equipped with buses and concrete rubble, while smoke and mock victims - their bodies marked by blood-colored makeup to simulate oozing, brutal injuries - added a last touch of ghastly realism to the exercise.
As the hazardous materials, or hazmat, teams from the Utica and Rome Fire Departments entered the hanger to test for contamination, the CERFP guardsmen set up decontamination and medical treatment tents outside. When the hazmat personnel found contamination and victims, they alerted the guardsmen, who then entered the hanger to work with their civilian counterparts, treat casualties, and evacuate them aboard litters for decontamination and further medical aid.
Spc. Tryone Desheers, a CERFP member from the 1156th Engineer Company, said the smoke and obstacles - such as barriers which forced them to enter a bus through its top hatch to rescue victims within - made for effective, challenging training. The smoke reduced visibility, so rescuers had to move deliberately to maximize safety for themselves and the victims, he explained.
"Your safety is number one," Desheers said. "If you go down, you have to call in more people to help you and the victim."
He's looking forward to doing more training at the center in the future, Desheers added.
The exercise exceeded expectations, especially the integration of New York State military forces with local, county and state agencies, said Lt. Col. Matthew Cooper, Weapons of Mass Destruction branch chief for the New York Army National Guard. The support from the training center and personnel there were more than enough to assure the exercise's success, he added.
"From our perspective, we couldn't have done it without the training center," said Cooper. "Knowing the capacity it offers, it should be considered for future exercises as well."
Members of the Albany-based New York Task Force 2, search and rescue team, also taught guardsman how to cut through concrete with electric jackhammers and lift debris from victims using air bags and cribbing.
James Daley, of New York Task Force 2, said it was great to work with the guardsmen, and he enjoyed doing hands-on training with them. In the case of real disasters, everyone has to work as a team, he stressed.
"There's no one group that can do everything themselves," said Daley. "I think the teamwork part of this is a wonderful thing."
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