Texas CERFP trains, learns at Operation Vigilant Guard in Louisiana

Story by: Staff Sgt. Jennifer Atkinson

Posted: April 18, 2016

Staff Sgt. Jennifer Atkinson Soldiers with the Texas Natonal Guard's 836th Sapper Co., 6th CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Package – CERFP, part of the Joint Task Force 136th (Maneuver Enhancement Brigade), work to stabilize a casualty by flashlight in near pitch dark during a collapsed structure rescue mission, as part of exercise Operation Vigilant Guard 2016 near Baton Rouge, La. April 15-17, 2016. Vigilant Guard focused on testing many of the state's response plans by having a Category 3 or 4 hurricane make landfall somewhere along the coast of Louisiana. In addition to fostering relationships between military and civilian partner agencies, the exercise allowed the exchange of ideas and best practices between the Louisiana and Texas CERFP units. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jennifer D. Atkinson/Released)
Staff Sgt. Jennifer Atkinson
Soldiers with the Texas National Guard's 836th Sapper Co., 6th CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Package – CERFP, part of the Joint Task Force 136th (Maneuver Enhancement Brigade), work to stabilize a casualty by flashlight in near pitch dark during a collapsed structure rescue mission, as part of exercise Operation Vigilant Guard 2016 near Baton Rouge, La. April 15-17, 2016. Vigilant Guard focused on testing many of the state's response plans by having a Category 3 or 4 hurricane make landfall somewhere along the coast of Louisiana. In addition to fostering relationships between military and civilian partner agencies, the exercise allowed the exchange of ideas and best practices between the Louisiana and Texas CERFP units. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jennifer D. Atkinson/Released)

BATON ROUGE, La. (April 16, 2016) – Disaster response involves a plethora of military and civilian agencies, including the 6th CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Package – CERFP. Making sure those parts stay connected and moving in the same direction takes training and coordination across both military and civilian agencies.

During Operation Vigilant Guard, held near Baton Rouge, La., April 15-17, 2016, the Soldiers and Airmen of the 6th CERFP, part of the Texas National Guard's Joint Task Force 136 (Maneuver Enhancement Brigade), enjoyed a chance to train with the Louisiana CERFP, Louisiana Task Forces 1 and 2, and members of the Florida CERFP, as well as coordinating transportation and vehicle movement validation with the Mississippi and West Virginia Air National Guards. 

For CERFP Commander Lt. Col. Heather Flores, Vigilant Guard satisfied two main objectives for her troops- to train and be trained. 

“Our primary objective during Vigilant Guard was to get our new trailers validated in an air load,” said Flores. “We received new trailers last year, and so we had to get all our equipment repacked and figure out how to load that into a military airframe.”

A C-17 crew from the West Virginia Air National Guard transported members of the CERFP, along with the new trailers for validation, instructing the Texas Guardsmen on how to properly install loading ramps as well as securing equipment, large and small, for air movement. The flight crew was “wonderful,” said Flores. “They did an amazing job training us and getting all our equipment loaded.”

After reaching Baton Rouge and unloading the trucks, trailers and baggage from the plane, the second part of the mission began. 

“Our other objective during Vigilant Guard was to help the Louisiana CERFP get their new Search and Extraction teams trained up,” said Flores. 

Search and Extraction Teams have a unique mission set, said 1st Lt. Jason Montalvo, 1st Platoon leader, 836th Sapper Co., part of the 6th CERFP.

“We go in to areas where there may be chemical or other hazards,” he said, “and we rescue people from collapsed structures or inaccessible places.”

After linking up with the incident commander, said Montalvo, there is a chain of events leading up to actually heading in to the “hot zone.” Determining the exact nature of the disaster, including any chemical hazards, setting up an operations center next to decontamination assets, and setting up a reconnaissance team all happen before anyone ever suits up to head into the hazardous area. “After all that, we suit up- in full protective gear if necessary- and we establish our priorities of work,” he said.

This kind of exercise with the support of an experienced unit is very helpful, said 1st Lt. Tolliver Washington, executive officer for the 927th Engineer Company, Louisiana CERFP's S&E element. 

Although Washington knows his Sappers are up to the challenge, it's still useful to look to what other units do. “Being a combat engineer relates to this mission,” he said, “since we do a lot of hands-on missions, and when something goes wrong we can fix it, but there's a difference between a unit with four years of experience and a unit with a few months of training. We've had this mission less than a year, so we're still in the early phases of our mission. We're working on getting all the training but this type of exercise is a huge benefit.” 

The Sappers in the 836th learn from each exercise, too, according to Montalvo. He stressed the exchange of ideas as a key element to the training. 

“We're here to help this S&E team get ready for their overall evaluation," he said, "but we want to trade ideas so we can all implement ideas and process that work better. It's important because we've all got really diverse thoughts.”

The Sapper Company stays proficient in their military mission, says Montalvo, and that helps with their civil support mission as well. “Obviously, we're not going to use explosives when trying to rescue people from a collapsed building, but that's not the only thing engineers do. We do other types of work, including vertical construction, and we work with our hands a lot. That gives us a broad knowledge base to draw on but hearing from other people is always good.”

The training benefits extend to another integral part of the S&E teams- the Air National Guard rig medics. The rig medics, highly trained Airmen, deploy with each S&E team to render medical care to casualties inside the hazard area. In order to do so safely, they must be trained to perform the same ascending and descending tasks as the Sappers.

“I really enjoy this part of being a medic,” said Airman 1st Class Juan Espinoza. “There's a lot of thinking on your feet because everything changes.” For Espinoza, the newest rig medic in the CERFP's 149th Medical Detachment, this exercise was his first true test. 

“I haven't gone through the full rig medic training,” he said, "so I had to learn everything on the fly.”

Although he was nervous at first, coming through the other side of a tough mission has been eye-opening. 

“I feel really confident in the team and what we can do,” Espinoza said. “We save people's lives. We get in, we get the patients and we get them out and to higher tier medical care.

“I am so proud of these guys,” said Flores. “They do amazing work for Texas and for all of FEMA Region 6. It tickles me to death to watch them do their jobs.”

Apart from the hands-on aspect of training, exercises like Vigilant Guard give agencies a great chance to test communications, said Flores. “In the military, we use a lot of acronyms, and a lot of our civilian counterparts have no idea what they mean, so it's good to practice communicating in plain terms.” 

Not all communication issues are between people, said Flores. “Our radios had to be reprogrammed so we could talk to the local first responders,” she said. 

Technical adjustments aside, the Louisiana CERFP “integrated us really well, and it was great to see our teams embedded into the local urban search and rescue teams and Louisiana Task Forces 1 and 2,” said Flores.

“No exercise every goes the way you expect,” said Flores. “This is a great chance to keep our folks flexible and thinking outside the box.”