SUPERIOR, Wis. — Soldiers and Airmen from both the Wisconsin and Minnesota National Guard tested their ability to respond to a hazardous materials incident during an exercise June 4-7 in Duluth, Minnesota and Superior.
The exercise simulated a massive explosion occurring on a Great Lakes freighter ship in the St. Louis River between Duluth and Superior. In the exercise scenario, the explosion destroys several buildings, breaches chemical storage tanks, causes hundreds of casualties and leaves victims trapped in collapsed buildings.
The scenario closely resembled the sort of incident for which units like the Wisconsin National Guard’s Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP) is designed.
Joining the Wisconsin CERFP in the multi-day exercise was the Wisconsin National Guard’s 54th Civil Support Team, the state’s full-time response force capable of identifying CBRN agents and substances, assessing current and projected consequences and advising on response measures. Across the border in Minnesota, the Minnesota CERFP and the 55th Civil Support Team were engaged in the same scenario.
The three-day exercise provided an excellent test of each unit’s ability to integrate into an Incident Command System that involved first responders from the Superior and Duluth Fire Departments and crossed state lines. The exercise also included U.S. Coast Guard personnel aboard Response Boat 45628 from U.S. Coast Guard Station Duluth.
All told, nearly 500 Soldiers, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen and approximately 50 local first responders participated in the exercise.
Lt. Col. Aaron Filter, the commander of the Wisconsin CERFP, explained that the military’s role in a domestic response scenario is to support the civilian incident commander. Each element becomes a tool at the disposal of the overall incident commander. Testing that integration during exercises is critical, so when a real incident occurs, all elements are prepared, he said.
“We were able to integrate well with the Superior Fire Department, so we were able to foster that mutual relationship, because we don’t know who we’d have to respond with and support,” Filter said.
CERFPs are made up of approximately 200 Soldiers and Airmen from different units that come together under a command and control element for this unique mission. In Wisconsin, the Medford, Wisconsin-based 273rd Engineer Company serves as the search and extraction element, while the 457th CBRN Company, based in Hartford, Wisconsin, makes up the decontamination element. The Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing provides the medical element as well as teams for recovering fatalities and communications.
The Wisconsin CERFP focused heavily on exercising its search and extraction capabilities along with its medical and fatality search and recovery team capabilities. As part of the scenario, the search and extraction team boarded a damaged lake freighter in Superior with the help of the Coast Guard, shored and braced the structure and began recovering casualties from the ship who were then treated by the CERFP’s medical team.
The final day of the exercise included a wide-area search with K-9 teams that simulated a mass casualty incident due to a hazardous material. Ultimately, the exercise served as an excellent test of the CERFP’s mission set.
“Since I’ve taken over this mission and this command about 15 months ago, I’m nothing but impressed with the Soldiers and Airmen who make up the CERFP.” Filter said. “True professionals in their skills and their trades. They really put their hearts and souls into what we do. They understand that this is a mission we hope we never have to perform, but as part-time Soldiers and Airmen, we have other jobs and other military functions that they are trained and have to perform. To do this on top of it, and take it very seriously, they put their whole heart and soul into it.”
Capt. Toby Coberly, of the 115th Fighter Wing and the Wisconsin CERFP’s medical plans and operations officer, said the exercise was a great test of the CERFP’s capabilities.
“Any large incident that is going to overwhelm local emergency services is likely to bring in multiple partners like this, so the better prepared you are to respond in a time of emergency is what this is all about,” he said. “Working with our partners in peace time before an emergency actually exists is the time to do that. The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”
Coberly said that the CERFP, despite being spread across multiple services and units, has developed into a cohesive element capable of fulfilling a key part of the Wisconsin National Guard’s mission as the nation’s first military responder in domestic emergencies.
“The mission of the National Guard in general is the same whether it’s Air or Army,” Coberly said. “In Wisconsin, we’ve got a very good working relationship. We’re focused on the same mission and objectives. We might only exercise a couple of times a year together, but we get together a lot outside of those exercises as well.”
To Filter, that’s what makes the National Guard such a unique and valuable organization.
“The CERFP stands ready to support our civilian law enforcement and rescue operations and foster that domestic operations perspective of the National Guard mission,” he said. “We are here to support both our local civilian and state governments as well as combat commanders when we are called to do our federal mission. That’s the thing that makes the National Guard unique from the other services.”
And while the CERFP is a large organization with many technical capabilities, it is also tailorable to meet the needs of the governor or incident commanders, depending on the sort of scenario with which they are confronted.