Utah Guard Responds to Mock Disaster on Oahu

By Ileen Kennedy | Public Affairs Office | Jan. 28, 2020


More than 150 members of the Utah National Guard arrived on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, by military aircraft to assist and train alongside their Hawaiian National Guard counterparts during a multi-state training exercise Jan. 28-30, 2020. The members of the Utah Guard were part of several teams: The Homeland Response Force, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive Task Force, the CBRNE Assist Support Element, the Decontamination Team, and a medical element. The exercise simulated a disaster on the island and allowed service members to train for a “relief-in-place” scenario.

“Our objective is to come in and train with the Hawaii [CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Package]," said Cpt. Scott Neilson, the CASE officer in charge. “We are going to fall in on them and do some cross-training to become more familiar with how they operate and basically sharpen a lot of our Soldier’s skills so we can operate on a high level.”

All elements within a Homeland Response Force have to be ready to quickly respond during a disaster. In Utah, the HRF has the goal to respond, even to its furthest reaches, within 72 hours from initial notification. In order to continually improve on this process each year, teams need to load and unload their equipment, vehicles, trailers and personnel onto military transport aircraft so they are proficient in moving quickly to locations where they are most needed.

“We could come out here and arrive on scene in the timeframes we are required to keep and sustain our decontamination footprint in a very large-scale event,” said Cpt. Daniel Bartholomew, UTNG decontamination command.

Hawaii falls within FEMA Region IV, with the main body of their HRF in California. California wasn’t available for this exercise so Utah took advantage of the training opportunity to move outside of their region, FEMA Region VIII.

 “With this exercise we will learn how to integrate at a regional level, which will expand our capacity to respond to large-scale events that could overwhelm states’ resources,” said Cpt. Dax Bajema, liaison officer to the HRF and Region IV regional planner for Hawaii Army National Guard. “Overall this will help Hawaii and possibly other regions in understanding how to expand beyond just the regional boundaries so we can have what is called a super region which might include multiple FEMA regions responding to an incident when state assets are overwhelmed.”    

Role players descended on the Utah and Hawaii DECON teams, yelling and crying in simulated pain and confusion. The teams transported the injured to the DECON tents on stretchers, practicing the proper procedures to load and unload an injured person and clean off any chemical contaminants.

“This really helps Utah,” said Bartholomew.  “This helps add cross-training in some other elements and gives us exposure to other things. What we do is not necessarily always the only right way, so us coming here and seeing what another decontamination unit does, and learn their best practices and their lessons learned, then we can incorporate those into how we go forth for future evaluations and do unit refinement over time.”

Being able to work alongside Hawaii National Guard’s First Sgt. Jason Kaaiakamanu, previous president of the national DECON working group and noncommissioned officer in charge of Hawaii’s DECON, was able to help incorporate the best practices into Utah’s procedures.

“Many of the procedures that [Kaaiakamanu] created have been adopted nationally,” said Capt. Mark Buffington, battle captain for FEMA Region VIII HRF for Utah National Guard. “Being able to pick his brain and being able to set things up has been very advantageous for us.”

Hawaii’s DECON equipment is similar to Utah’s, but not exactly the same, so it’s also important to learn how to assemble and disassemble each other’s equipment before a real-world scenario. Hawaii’s equipment is compact to be able to move from island to island, as needed.

“We can always learn how to do things better,” said Neilson. “There are different procedures that we look at as an organization that will make us more efficient than we are, so it is very valuable for us to come out here and look and see and work with these other organizations on how they are doing it because it helps improve our overall capability.”

The search-and-extraction training area at the Hawaii National Guard facility has three large shipping containers stacked on top of each other with a series of cement slabs and cylinders winding throughout the different levels. Utah Soldiers began by using large drills to cut their way through the cement, then shoring the slabs with wood braces to stabilize the area before crawling through the small tunnels to recover and extract a victim.

“We’re here to support Hawaii in their training,” said Sgt. 1st Class Travis Pharmer, Utah’s noncommissioned officer in charge Search and Extract. “The more training we do, the more proficient our teams become, so therefore when we have to show up for a real-world event we know what we are doing and it’s not a problem, we get the job done.”

Hawaii is quite isolated in the Pacific and presents unique challenges to transport a HRF to the area.

“If we ever have any incident that needs a regional response it’s going to be a challenge to get here,” said Bajema. “If they take those lessons learned of how they got here, and what it took to get here, and hopefully maintain that so if we ever do need their assistance in Hawaii or even further out in the Pacific such as Guam, they are able to respond if necessary.”

At the end of the three-day training event it is hoped that both Utah and Hawaii Soldiers have built new relationships from working together, expanded the units knowledge-base and gained best practices for traveling from Utah to Hawaii and back.

“It’s a great opportunity to be able to train with Hawaii,” said Neilson. “Training with a different organization is not just a great experience but it will help us become better at our jobs.”



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