CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Enormous tornadoes ripped through the Denver-metro area, while simultaneously, a massive wildfire burned thousands of acres of forest near Colorado Springs, Colo.
While threatening lives, the catastrophic damage caused secondary problems: collapsed buildings, a train derailment from damaged tracks and toxic-chemical spill.
The chaos quickly overwhelmed local civilian first response authorities, and the governor of Colorado ordered the National Guard to help.
For residents of Colorado’s Front Range, this scenario, although make believe, isn’t difficult to imagine.
During the week of July 22 to 26, roughly 2,300 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from eight states, as well as hundreds of civilian medical personnel and first responders participated in Vigilant Guard. Hosted by the Colorado National Guard, Vigilant Guard was a training exercise that implemented the above scenario at simulated disaster sites across the Front Range.
The event, sponsored by U.S. Northern Command and the National Guard Bureau, provided military and civilian first responders the opportunity to coordinate and work with one another while practicing vital civil-support training for the purpose of saving lives, reducing human suffering and minimizing large-scale property damage or destruction within the state — and beyond.
“These exercises are a great opportunity for agencies across the state to practice lessons learned from real-world missions,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “It's also a perfect time for organizations that don't often respond to disasters of this nature to learn from the best.”
Training events were robust and included decontamination of moulaged actors portraying contaminated victims, search-and-extraction exercises within collapsed structures, aerial firefighting, medical evacuations and contamination testing, among others.
Recent real-world natural disasters have emphasized the vital importance of immediate emergency response to save lives and mitigate property damage. The communication and relationship between military and civil agencies first on scene is paramount.
“Colorado National Guard members have been put into recent real-world scenarios with wildfires in our state over the past two years,” said Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Peter J. Byrne, Joint Task Force-Centennial commander. “The Vigilant Guard exercise is an opportunity to put many of the lessons learned into practice and prepare for the response if an additional catastrophic event or events were to occur.”
And when called to assist in a disaster, such as the 2012-13 wildfires, the Colorado National Guard is well-positioned in several communities across the state to serve.
“The National Guard’s structure is phenomenal,” said Cindy Matthews, public relations and marketing strategist at Denver Health. “They understand the incident command and emergency response. They know how to do it in the field. They know how to do it quickly, efficiently and methodically. This training with them is very valuable as they share their wisdom with us.”
Maj. Brad Christopher, commander of the 101st Civil Support Team, Idaho Army National Guard, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the readiness of his troops to help their community, state and region when called upon.
“My Soldiers have a huge sense of pride,” he said. “These folks are invested. They believe what they do is important, and it shows in the amount and quality of work that they do. We’re protecting our families and the people we know and care about. It’s a very personal mission and we take it very seriously.”
Someone wearing a chemical decontamination suit or search-and-rescue hard hat isn’t what most people envision a Soldier, or Airman, but that’s what makes the National Guard so dynamic.
“These are service members who have a dual mission to their nation and to their state and community as well, while balancing home life and civilian jobs,” said Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards, adjutant general of the Colorado National Guard.
After an already busy summer supporting wildfire efforts, many Soldiers and Airmen were once again away from their families and civilian employers. Although a sacrifice for these service members, these types of exercises are essential to ensure readiness to help in any situation, Byrne said.
Hosted several times per year in varying states across the U.S., the purpose of Vigilant Guard exercises is to allow National Guard entities and their civilian first response counterparts to practice working together before a real, catastrophic event ever happens. Typical Vigilant Guard scenarios are disasters that are man-made in nature, including nuclear bombs and terrorist attacks, making this Vigilant Guard exercise unique in being a natural disaster scenario.
“This is a non-standard training mission since we don’t usually do natural-disaster exercises,” said Staff Sgt. Amanda Keltz, survey team member with 8th Civil Support Team, Colorado Air National Guard, “but We have the personnel and equipment to help the state if something like this were to happen. We have the capability to assist.”
Christopher said that natural disasters can put a serious strain on local first response agencies, and the National Guard wants incident commanders to know that they’re here to help.
“The National Guard is a real critical asset to civil authorities,” he said. “Incident commanders can utilize us as another tool. We have the desire to make a difference and offer robust analytical, communications, command and control and technical capabilities. We’re here and ready to help. Just call.”
Scott Campbell, fire management officer with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, noted that with the recent fires in Colorado, the civilian first responders’ relationship with the Guard is very mature.
“I know them and they know me,” Campbell said. “One phone call and they’re ready to go.”