Activated Colorado National Guard team grew its expertise in extreme conditions

By Staff Sgt. Joseph K. VonNida, Colorado National Guard Public Affairs | CONG, TAG | June 24, 2020

In February 2020, the CONG Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield explosive Enhanced Response Force Package’s sent an augmentation to Alaska to support the Utah Homeland Response Force at Exercise Arctic Eagle 2020.

Arctic Eagle brought together about 900 Air and Army National Guard members from 15 states to train at venue-based events at multiple locations across Alaska for two weeks.

The Colorado augmentation consisted of one search and extraction strike team and a 6- to 8-person contingent of command and control.

“We were in an arctic environment, something we had never really done before,” U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Owens, search and extraction Non-commissioned Officer in charge, said. “This gave us the ability to exercise our equipment in extreme cold weather. Putting our equipment and our personnel in this situation trains us to be ready to respond in any weather.”

Although the teams had worked in subzero temperatures, they had not previously trained in an Arctic environment at below minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Participating in Arctic Eagle allowed the team to test capabilities better, preparing the unit members to react in an extreme environment.

“Not only had our breach and break, cutting tools, and hydraulic systems never been tested in this weather but also our electronic equipment,” Owens said. “Typically electronic equipment fails pretty rapidly once you get into sub-zero temperatures.”

This training also provided experienced-based feedback to the National Guard Bureau about how weather affects equipment.

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Daniel Coplen, CERFP operations officer, said when the temperature read minus 10 degrees, filters on detection equipment would rapidly freeze with any amount of moisture, and batteries would die fairly quickly.

“We knew there would be problems, but we didn’t know when they would appear,” he said. “We didn’t know what pieces of equipment work well and what equipment doesn’t.”

The team had to use hand warmers and wrap battery-powered equipment, such as radios, to insulate them and attempt to prolong the life of the charge.

Participating in Arctic Eagle also helped the Colorado CERFP bring their skills to a new level.

Even at home station, Colorado CERFP has a unique training environment. Although the state’s terrain plays a part in how training is conducted, and can impact equipment and the physical demands of the team’s members, they embrace the Army National Guard’s leadership’s challenge to stay “mission first, mountain strong.”

“Colorado has the capacity to train in all four seasons and I think that gives us a little bit of an advantage over a lot of CERFPs,” Owens said. “But weather doesn’t change the overall mission, only the equipment we use or how we respond.”

“We need to be prepared for anything,” Coplen said. “And no matter what, we are ready to respond.”

Just two weeks after returning from Alaska, Gov. Jared Polis activated the CONG March 12 to support the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment to test Coloradans for COVID-19 and stop the spread of the deadly virus.

“All of the training we’ve been doing, it’s theoretical,” U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Meens, 147th Brigade Support Battalion, Colorado Army National Guard, said. “But this mission, it’s a real threat. This is real life.”

“We’re using decontamination, command and control, and medical teams,” CERFP Commander U.S. Army Maj. Perry Read said. “We’re working in a contaminated environment and wearing personal protective equipment.”

That equipment is a NexGen suit, a Kappler suit, and PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator) mask, which differs from the M51 mask used in CBRN events in that the first mask is made for many different operations. 

Read said the new equipment has been fit tested to their standard equipment which is typically used for CBRNE events and that it is performing as expected.

“Our training in Alaska rolled into the mission in Telluride, Colorado, and their exposure and experience with cold weather operations helped prevent cold weather injuries on our team,” Read said.

The CONG helped test more than 400 Coloradans at drive up testing sites across the state, nearly 900 staff and residents at three long-term care facilities in Colorado, and 1,500 residents of Weld County, Colorado.  At the request of the Colorado Unified Coordination Center, the team is also educating civilian staff at testing sites and leaving kits behind for them to safely conduct testing on their own.

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Larry Blazer, platoon sergeant, 3650th Maintenance Company, Colorado Army National Guard, and operations Non-commissioned Officer in charge, has served on the team for about 12 years.

 “This is why I joined the National Guard, to help the state I live in, in a time of need with no questions asked,” he said. “I am very thankful for the training that I have received from CERFP. Without that training I could not have been as prepared as I was to do this mission.”