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Firefighters train for domestic disasters

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Culeen Shaffer
  • 193rd Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
As clouds of dust and noise fill the air, 15 firefighters, wearing hard hats, dust masks, hearing protection and overalls, fight their way through concrete. The hot afternoon sun beats down on them as they drill and saw their way through a concrete rubble pile in Harrisburg Sept. 5. Some crawl into tubes where it is hotter, dark, noisier, and potentially unsafe.

Nothing stands in their way for long as they work to get to the other side of a structural collapse where a victim - a rescue dummy - waits.

Although this is the final training scenario, it mirrors real life events. The firefighters from the 193rd Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron must be prepared to rescue real victims if called upon.

On the final day of the two-week Federal Emergency Management Agency Structural Collapse Technician course, participants are certified to perform the new mission they were tasked with by the National Guard Bureau Joint Staff.

"The new mission is a win-win for us. It continues to make us relevant," said Senior Master Sgt. Timothy W. Sevison, 193rd SOW Fire Department superintendent. "The [Air National Guard], being part of the National Guard under the governor's authority, is more specifically suited for domestic operations than their active duty brothers."

The experience and training that the firefighters received doesn't just benefit them and their new mission.

"This is a tremendous benefit to the community and our local fire departments," said Sevison.

Out of the 15 firefighters who received the training, 14 of them are full-time firefighters either for a military fire department or a civilian one, Sevison said.

The ANG firefighters could be requested to support the FEMA Federal Emergency Management Agency Structural Urban Search and Rescue Task Force mission in the event of a domestic disaster that exceeds or has the potential to exceed the capabilities/capacity of local, state and the FEMA US&R Task Force, per the ANG Search and Rescue Teams Concept of Operations unclassified document.

In order to be ready when called, the firefighters must be trained and certified.

The first step that Sevison and five other 193rd SOW firefighters took to be ready was joining the Vigilant Guard exercise, which took place in May. Vigilant Guard is a training exercise held in various parts of the country in which Guardsmen work alongside state, local and federal first responders in a simulated disaster scenario.

Master Sgt. Troy Christman, 193rd SOW Fire Department Technician Fire Chief stated in his Vigilant Guard After Action Report from May that his team had worked well with other local level agencies. Christman also wrote that, "Training in realistic environments is a must for this type of operation. There is no substitute to develop the skills needed to perform in an Urban Search and Rescue environment."

Knowing that they needed even more training than just Vigilant Guard, Christman worked to get himself and 14 others in the FEMA Structural Collapse Technician course.

Christman said the level of training they received at the Senator John J. Shumaker Public Safety Center, Harrisburg Area Community College, during the course was well beyond what he thought they would receive anywhere else.

The practical evaluation and hands-on work they did in the field was the best part of the training and the most beneficial, Christman added.

"That's how guys learn the skills that are needed for this; not by sitting in a classroom," Christman said.

Breaking through concrete, constructing and placing shoring, and rescuing victims are not the only skills the firefighters learned over the two weeks spent at HACC.

The firefighters learned skills ancillary to breaking concrete, such as critical thinking, said Sevison. Sevison explained that during the training they had to move a 2 feet by 2 feet concrete block through an obstacle course using only manual tools, such as pry bars and iron pipes; critical thinking was needed to anticipate many steps ahead and to look at the entire course versus what was right in front of them.

These same critical thinking skills will help them identify and mitigate hazards in real-world situations.

If a real-world situation arises, FEMA Region III now has 15 new highly trained firefighters that they can call upon when needed. Sevison said he has confidence in the firefighters to perform at the highest level.

"They have excellent leadership and followership skills and have the ability to use the skills and knowledge obtained in the training," Sevison added.

Robert D. Murray, an instructor for the Shumaker Public Safety Center, said the 193rd firefighters are the only group he has seen giving 100 percent effort from start to finish. "I'm very impressed," he added.

Christman said the instructors are field operators who have real-world experience, to include Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and more.

Now that they are trained, they will perform annual training to keep up with their new skill sets. Christman said the next phase is to have it included in their annual training plan that already covers hazardous materials, confined spaces, and rope rescue training.

To fulfill their requirement of doing a tri-annual exercise, Christman said he would like to get involved again with Vigilant Guard or a similar exercise that involves local, state, and federal agencies.

"The more proficient the rescue team can be at performing life-saving techniques, the better support we can provide as first responders to the community during emergency incidents or natural disasters," Christman noted in the Vigilant Guard AAR.