CAMP WILLIAMS, Utah –
On a normal weekend, the sight of men and women donning full chemical suits and driving rescue vehicles may seem alarming. To the soldiers in the Utah National Guard Homeland Response Force it’s any given Saturday. With around 580 soldiers in its ranks, the HRF is designed to respond to landscape altering events such as chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) attacks, in addition to natural disasters such as earthquakes or wildfires. Ultimately these men and women are in the business of saving lives.
“My emphasis is we’ve just got to be prepared,” said Col. Steven Brenchley, the HRF commanding officer. “We are training to be prepared for that response. We are one of 10 units in the country with this capability and if something were to happen on the west coast—we would be the ones to respond.”
On this weekend, around 270 HRF troops gathered at Camp Williams to complete an annual external evaluation. This year the training focused on the fallout from a 10-kiloton nuclear explosion. Soldiers searched rubble piles for victims and took the necessary steps to decontaminate nuclear particles from their bodies and then provided medical assistance.
“It’s important to get (training) down to the smallest details,” said Col. Ryan Robinson, deputy commanding officer of the exercise. “We’re dealing with human lives—saving lives. We have to mitigate suffering.”
Those human lives were portrayed by real people. Actors from the Salt Lake City area took part in the training and even dressed in full triage. The actors gave the soldiers a run for their money with a malady of ailments ranging from illness to complete dismemberment and even (notional) death.
“We received a mass email that went out to everyone in EMT Utah,” said Nicholas Carico, a Utah Valley University student and emergency medical technician trainee, and one of the simulated injured role players. “We get the experience here of seeing how to handle a mass casualty, and that helps us know how to act—both here in this exercise and on the other side when we are the responders.”
“They’re taking it really seriously, and it’s cool to watch,” added Mallory Langford a University of Utah medical student from Salt Lake City who got the honor of playing an amputee trapped in a fallen structure. “We are given our injuries and ailments ahead of time,” she added. “And we play the role and keep in character.”
Having actors in the triage role adds the element of human emotion to the training and creates real scenarios, such as patients not immediately complying with instruction. Soldiers learn coping skills and how to de-escalate situations. Human emotion adds a degree of reality simply not found using training dummies and aids.
HRF Soldiers train in situations like these so they can be ready to deploy rapidly to areas of need. Designed to deploy within 6-12 hours, soldiers spend the year honing their techniques and then test their capabilities at external evaluations such as this one. They train in simulated situations so they can respond and react to real situations.
“Last fall we (HRF) were involved in responding to the devastating burns in Utah County,” said Brenchley. “There were worries about flooding after the fires. We deployed and did some flood mitigation. We’re a great asset because we already do this stuff. County emergency managers put up the request to the state, and the Governor activates the National Guard and we can go out and respond. We have the manpower to help, and we have the vehicles and equipment to support requests both locally and distant.”
While a 10-kiloton nuclear blast creates a bold headline, HRF soldiers also train for the more likely events to occur in the Intermountain West, such as earthquakes, flooding, wildfires and significant weather events.
“We do train for those more likely events, such as storms and earthquakes,” said Brenchley. “But we always prepare for the bigger and more devastating events such as a CBRNE disaster. That’s really why we’re here. Saving lives and helping those in need.”