VOLK FIELD, Wis. — The best response to a worst-case scenario — such as a nuclear explosion in the Twin Cities — is a well-trained, validated team of disaster response specialists. And Wisconsin’s specially trained force for a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) incident successfully validated its readiness during a June 25-27 exercise at Volk Field.
External evaluators from U.S. Army North validated the Wisconsin National Guard’s CBRN Enhanced Response Force Package — or CERFP — during the exercise, which involved nearly 300 participants and simulated the detonation of a 10-kiloton nuclear device in the Twin Cities area. This large-scale disaster scenario is exactly the sort for which the CERFP is designed.
A joint unit, made up of both Soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 273rd Engineer Company in Medford, the 457th Chemical Company in Hartford and Burlington, and a command and control element from the 641st Troop Command Battalion headquarters in Madison, as well as Airmen from the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing’s medical group, a communications team, and a fatality search and recovery team, the CERFP is a highly trained and specialized unit.
The 273rd Engineer Company provides the unit’s reconnaissance and search and extraction capabilities, while the 457th Chemical Company provides a mass decontamination capability for service members, first responders, and victims coming out of a contaminated area. Following decontamination, victims pass through medical triage and treatment provided by the 115th Fighter Wing’s doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.
That joint experience is just one of the unique aspects of the CERFP’s mission.
“We see the same medics, the same Air Force personnel that we train with all the time,” explained Spc. Alexander Fieldhack, a combat engineer with 273rd Engineer Company and member of the company’s reconnaissance team. “We train continuously each mission with them, and the more we get see them, the more we get to know and work with them, so I’d say it’s pretty seamless. We’re on the same team.”
Everybody on that team knows the grave importance of their no-fail mission.
“It’s important because you’ll have natural disasters or any kind of reason you might need a CERFP unit that is trained to go down in a chemical environment,” Fieldhack said. “It’s important to have that if someone’s worst day does happen for them to be here and know what we’re doing. So we practice it so we’ve done it before, and the more trained we are, the more effective we’ll be in the real world.”
Maj. Paige Vertein, an emergency trauma nurse in the 115th Fighter Wing’s medical group, agreed.
“Nurses are trained [for] trauma, so they do everything the exact same every single time,” she said. “Teams change, new people come in, people come in with new teams, so you want to teach them exactly how it’s done. And you want to always do things the exact same way every time the best that you possibly can, because when this ever happens, which I hope it never does for our country, but if this ever happens, people are going to be frantic, and if you’re doing stuff the exact same way every time, you’re going to get it done the right way with no mistakes.”
That muscle memory developed through continuous training and repetitions helps ensure the CERFP is ready in the event that the state or nation needs them to respond.
“It’s kind of the Guard’s mission to help out the hometown in case the worst case could ever happen,” said Capt. Chad Moline, the commander of the decontamination element. “We’re there to help. We’re kind of that first line they’re going to see to help get them cleaned and get them into medical care to make sure they get the treatment they need.”
Moline said his unit trains constantly to ensure the unit’s readiness. The unit has two-and-a-half hours beginning when the first element of the unit arrives on scene to when they must be fully operational. Once established it has to sustain operations for operational periods of eight to 12 hours.
“You just train on it,” he said. “You make sure that the Soldiers know how important the mission is not only to the state leadership and the battalion leadership, but also to the local population that this asset’s out there, that Wisconsin and Gov. Evers knows he has this asset available to him at any time, especially with big events coming up in the state in the next year. If there was an incident or there were going to be issues that we can respond and will respond.”
Every unit that makes up the CERFP simultaneously has a federal Army or Air Force mission for which it must simultaneously prepare. The 273rd Engineer Company is a combat engineer unit that could deploy overseas in support of its federal mission, while the 457th has its own federally deployable mission. The same is true for the 115th Fighter Wing and each of its individual elements.
The units find a balance between maintaining readiness for both missions, just as the rest of the National Guard trains for its federal mission as the primary combat reserve for the Army and Air Force while remaining ready to answer the call during emergencies here at home.
“We take care of our homeland,” said Tech Sgt. Spring Miller, a public health specialist with the 115th Fighter Wing. “It’s amazing to have an opportunity to take care of our own state, but not just our state. We have the ability to report to Michigan. We have the ability to go to Illinois and support the Illinois CERFP. We can link up within the five surrounding states of Wisconsin.”
The CERFP is specifically designed to respond to a variety of scenarios, and it can tailor or flex its response depending on the scenario. In 2015, a decontamination element responded to Jefferson County where it decontaminated vehicles assisting with the state’s response to an avian flu outbreak. It could also respond in a hazardous materials, radiological, or nuclear incident with contaminated victims in collapsed buildings.
“The difference with this mission is this is for our people,” said Lt. Col. Paul Felician, the commander of Wisconsin’s CERFP. “It is specifically a response capability that was developed to respond domestically, so because of that, we’ve been given some unique training and some unique capabilities in terms of equipment.”
The CERFP conducts an external evaluation every three years to validate its readiness for this important mission. Thanks to the professionalism and dedication of its Soldiers and Airmen, the units are ready for both their federal missions and their domestic missions in the event that America needs to face its worst-case scenario.