Soldiers from the 273rd Engineer Company and Airmen from the 115th Fighter Wing teamed up for a weekend of training at the Regional Emergency All-Climate Training Center (REACT), at Volk Field, Wisconsin, on March 7.
The REACT Center is a training complex that encompasses a wide variety of training options for units that specialize in technical rescue operations.
Both units make up the Wisconsin National Guard's CERFP — or CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high explosive) Enhanced Response Force Package. CERFPs are able to locate and extract victims from a contaminated environment and are ready to deploy within six hours of notification.
"Being able to have access to facilities such as the REACT and the ability to work and integrate with the Air Force allows us to develop scalable, tailored, adaptable and ready Soldiers so that they can be available to do their mission anywhere, anytime," said 1st Sgt. Eric Johansen, the 273rd's senior enlisted leader.
"You can sit in a classroom and you can talk about injuries and you can talk about pulling people out but we're able to come here and they actually set up scenarios," said Master Sgt. Thomas Wastart, a leader of the search and rescue team for the 115th.
Wastart has been in the Air National Guard for 12 years with parallel experience on the civilian side as a firefighter and emergency medical service provider.
"It's a whole different ballgame as far as training goes," he said. "We can kind of put all our medical training together."
The two units worked in teams consisting of both Soldiers and Airmen to conduct operations such as confined space rescue, shoring and search and extraction.
Confined space rescue training at the REACT Center is set up to mimic a collapsed building with extremely tight spaces where trainees can get a feel for what a real-life scenario would be like. Shoring of collapsed buildings can require an enormous amount of tedious, grueling and sometimes pain-staking effort on the part of rescuers, and the REACT Center offers the capability to train military members and others for events where these skills are necessary.
"We're there as a first responder," said Staff Sgt. Josh Steffens of the 273rd. Steffens explained how the CERFP maintains its readiness by training on a regular basis in order to provide search and rescue support to victims during catastrophic events.
"If anything happens, we're the guys to call," Steffens said. He highlighted the fact that there are a number of people within the unit that work as firefighters as civilians which gives them an added advantage.
The units spent the day simulating different ways that victims could become trapped inside collapsed structures where the integrity of the building is compromised and unstable. They built makeshift support structures to shore up walls and used special techniques to move enormous blocks of concrete by hand. They used jack hammers to break up reinforced concrete and did a variety of classes on rigging and knot-tying, all while keeping in mind the safety of the people whom they may need to rescue.
"The end goal is to get to that patient," Wastart said.
Once reached, the patient is immediately treated for any life-threatening injuries and prepared for extraction. The 115th medics are specially trained to deal with injuries that are common to disaster-type scenarios and can provide medical support on-the-fly in just about any situation.
"If there was an event, something catastrophic, the unit would respond along with other elements of the CERFP as a whole," said Sgt. Sean Schemenauer, a team leader with the 273rd .
The CERFP trains at the REACT Center at least twice per year and sometimes as many as five times per year, said Capt. Jared Siverling, 273rd commander.
"I would be hard-pressed to find another unit in the state in a traditional drilling status that does more training than we do," Siverling said.
Scott Hall, a senior instructor with the REACT Center since 2007, oversees units like the 273rd and 115th who come here to train. Hall is a seasoned expert who has about 20 years of experience in the field of urban search and rescue.
"They're remembering and retaining what they're learning," Hall said of the CERFP. Rigging and knot tying, as well as medical treatment techniques, are considered perishable skills and require regular practice to maintain proficiency.
Siverling spoke to the CERFP's joint status, with the Army and Air National Guard working hand-in-hand.
"We have the same mission — we're just going to fall in together and execute," Siverling said. The two units train together on a regular basis which enhances their readiness and breaks down barriers in communication which can lead to life-threatening consequences when carrying out a mission.
"It just makes our team much more diverse, much more robust," Siverling said. The 273rd is equipped to deploy rapidly and Soldiers have become very proficient at their jobs due to the training provided at the REACT Center.
"That's why I feel so proud to be a part of this company," Steffens said.