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CBRN VALEX offers glimpse into future emergency management training

  • Published
  • By Samuel C. Hazzard
  • Air Force Civil Engineer Center

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The future of Air Force emergency management (EM) training is taking shape in a remote Utah desert.

In August, more than 40 EM Airmen participated in a two-week chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear validation exercise (CBRN VALEX) training event at Dugway Proving Ground. The VALEX was designed to provide realistic wartime CBRN response training. 

Experts from the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Emergency Management Division at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, developed and organized the event.

“For the past 21 years, we've been heavily focused on emergency management program execution in support of homeland defense,” said EM Career Field Manager Chief Master Sgt. Adam Womack. “As we look at new complex threats, we know our adversaries may have or are pursuing weapon of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities. This exercise is the foundational footprint to validate that we can be light, lean and agile as proficient and competent CBRN specialists operating in that environment.”

The 40 participants and eight cadre members, representing teams from nine major commands and the Air National Guard, spent the first week in classrooms and labs with top experts learning the chemistry and biology behind CBRN threats.

“One of the things I love about this event is you have scientists and subject matter experts from the chemical-biological defense enterprise,” said Col. Scott Stanford, AFCEC’s Readiness Directorate chief.  “Some of the smartest people in the world are training our Airmen in this environment. It’s going to pay dividends and help them build their confidence in their core skill set.”

During week two of VALEX, the Airmen got to put what they learned in the classroom into practice in some unique training environments. From a small basement bio-weapons lab to a state actor WMD facility, the training environments provided by Dugway Proving Ground immersed the teams into hyper-realistic scenarios. There was even an underground tunnel network only accessible through a hidden entrance.

“Operating in the tunnel was pretty cool,” said Master Sgt. Jessica Gluth, EM manager at the 496th Air Base Squadron, Morόn Air Base, Spain. “I loved seeing my Airmen adjust to that type of environment. The creative thinking came about when they faced different challenges trying to locate and identify the target.” 

 “These are very realistic, challenging scenarios,” said AFCEC’s Emergency Management Division Chief Mike Connors. “You've got to move into a completely black cave or hike over a mountain to get to your target. I think the Airmen have shown great enthusiasm, but there have also been some reality checks.”

Donning thick mission-oriented protective posture equipment with desert temperatures soaring over 100 degrees took its toll on the Airmen physically and mentally.

“It’s been challenging for them,” said Master Sgt. Rick DeLong, EM superintendent, Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado, and VALEX Team Five lead.
“Putting on that mask and working in that environment for hours can be difficult. In that heat, you're expected to keep your cognitive ability strong enough to hit all the points and targets like you're supposed to.”

In addition to classroom training and field exercises, the Airmen saw demonstrations of next-generation tools and equipment that may be added to EM equipment sets soon. One of the most anticipated was Spot, a robotic dog platform equipped with CBRN sensors designed to inspect potentially dangerous locations for EM Airmen.
VALEX participants also tested the austere environment reconnaissance surveillance (AERS) response vehicle designed to carry a four-person CBRN team and equipment they need to approach a target.

“The AERS is the way of the future,” said DeLong. “We're able to put all of our equipment we need to go downrange on one light, agile platform.”

Putting together a training event like VALEX was no easy task for AFCEC’s EM Division.

“VALEX is the most complex exercise we've done as a community in the last 10 or 15 years,” said Connors. “Bringing in the people, planning the scenarios, and the logistics of getting equipment to Dugway Proving Ground was a massive undertaking, but our team killed it! We’ve had outstanding support from our Dugway partners and an incredible team of Hammer Adaptive Communications Element specialists.”

The participants think the planning hours have certainly paid off. When asked about the comments he’s heard from his team, DeLong smiled.

“The best training I’ve ever received in my career,” he said.

“This is an incredible experience for our career field, and I'm really excited to see where we're going to go in the future,” said Gluth.

AFCEC leadership is already looking to build on VALEX’s success.

“This is the beginning, not the end,” said Connors. “We’re asking, ‘how can we do this multiple times a year and possibly expand it to the Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Air Forces in Europe theaters?’ I can promise you, VALEX is here to stay.”

(Editor's Note: Hazzard is the emergency management operations section manager in AFCEC's Readiness Directorate)