By Staff Sgt. Sherree Grebenstein, 167th Airlift Wing
/ Published November 10, 2009
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing played a critical role Friday afternoon in an international readiness exercise which tested the mettle of a neighboring agency tasked with search and rescue missions overseas.
The Martinsburg base was chosen as a Point of Departure (POD) for Virginia Task Force 1's International Urban Search and Rescue team from the United States Agency for International Development. The Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency has 28 search and rescue teams which support missions nationwide with the USAID able to task two teams for overseas assignments.
Members of the Virginia Task Force 1 and its Los Angeles County, Calif., counterpart deploy for both urban search and rescue missions across the country as well as around the world. Since 1986, Virginia Task Force 1 has deployed for natural and man-made disasters, officials said.
Most recently Virginia Task Force 1 deployed to Petitionville, Haiti for search and rescue operations involving victims trapped in a school after it had collapsed.
According to Robert J. Zoldos II, the coordinator for 2009 Full Team Exercise, Virginia Task Force 1's International Urban Search and Rescue team based in Fairfax County, Va., normally departs from Dover Air Force Base for its overseas mission.
But the air base in Martinsburg, is actually closer and may prove a viable option in the future, Zoldos said.
The training operational readiness exercise was conducted from Nov.6-8 and simulated an overseas deployment to the fictitious country of Kameria where an explosion destroyed several industrial buildings in the rural town of Dortal. Hundreds of people were reportedly trapped.
For the scenario, the USAID tapped Virginia Task Force 1 for the urban search and rescue mission. After the team mobilized in the wake of the catastrophic event, its first stop was the 167th Airlift Wing.
"We are helping them facilitate an exercise for a forward deployment to a different country," said 1st Lt. Chris T. Tusing, installation deployment officer for the 167th Airlift Wing.
"They wanted to test their mobility machine," Tusing said. "Our mission is to facilitate a successful forward deployment for this team from our location."
And it proved good training for Airmen assigned to the base too.
"It's very comparable to our operational readiness exercises," Tusing added.
Airmen were tasked with ensuring that more than 75 personnel - comprised of fire department-based personnel, doctors, structural engineers, first responders and K-9 handlers - as well as their equipment and three vehicles were processed and loaded safely onto the C-5 for its humanitarian flight.
"It parallels what we are doing in preparations for our upcoming Operational Readiness Inspection," Tusing said.
The three-day exercise was held at various sites throughout Fairfax County and the surrounding area with Virginia Task Force 1 performing everything from reconnaissance and rescue of victims to K-9 searches and hazardous materials recognition," Zoldos said.
He said the inter-agency exercise which consisted of observers and facilitators evaluating the performance of the task force was a joint collaboration involving the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, USAID and FEMA.
Rick A. Roatch, battalion chief for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, acted as an observer for the event which presented members with challenging scenarios and tested their problem-solving skills.
"This is what we call a full-scale exercise which we are simulating flying to a foreign country, setting up a base camp and work sites," Roatch said. "We will be searching for a lot of victims."
Dean Scott, a FEMA observer, said the exercise also showed how well the team could do if it didn't leave American soil.
Scott said every search and rescue task force assigned to FEMA is required to undergo a mobility exercise annually.
"As the military well knows, the only way you get good at anything is to train," Scott said. "You fight as you train."
" If they don't do these (exercises) on a regular basis, they will have a lot of people that will not be familiar with being around aircraft and working with the military," he said.
Scott said there are issues with loading a military aircraft with civilian resources and such an exercise addresses them.
Andy J. Hubert, a member of the Virginia Task Force 1 who responded to New York City in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, is an original member of the team which was formed more than 20 years ago.
Hubert is no stranger to overseas deployments for search and rescue missions. Instead of boarding the C-5 Friday afternoon, he acted as a team observer.
It's his experience that it could take anywhere from 20 minutes to eight hours to load an aircraft, he said.
But such a time flux does not exist for members of the task force after they are notified of a mission.
He said within six hours after activation, the team must be at the POD.
Originally it was Andrews Air Force Base, but a C-5 from Dover had to be flown there so it was later changed to Dover Air Force Base, he said.
Hubert recalled the team's first overseas mission in 1988.
He said about 20 first responders took tools out of their emergency response vehicles and put them in cardboard boxes which were loaded onto a C-141 with a destination of Armenia which was rocked by a devastating earthquake.
To date the task force has grown four-fold, he said.
Not surprisingly its cargo and equipment have expanded in size too.
Hubert said the Airmen with the 167th Airlift Wing loaded over 110,000 pounds of equipment and vehicles onto the C-5 Friday afternoon.
"All of our resources are loaded onto the vehicles and we are able to be self-sufficient for 10 days," he said.
"In addition to the personnel there may be six search dogs too," he said.
During the past two decades, Virginia Task Force 1 has flown on about 10 overseas missions around the world to include earthquakes in Turkey and Iran as well as the embassy bombing in Nairobi, Hubert said.
And exercises such as the three-day one only enhance the team's response time, Hubert said.
"Over the years we have newer people that become part of the process, and with all of the different factions that we have to deal with such as the military for transportation, the different countries that we have to go to, making sure all of our people have the information that they need so that when we do get the call to go help search and rescue and try and find live victims it cuts down the response time and it gets us in there searching for them quicker," he said.
Hubert said the exercise provided a good venue to establish a rapport with the 167th Airlift Wing so that it can partner with it in the future.
Airmen saw firsthand the equipment that would be needed to be flown over for search and rescue missions and what expectations there were, he said.
"If we ever have the actual disaster where we have to go, it kind of speeds up the process because you are aware of what we are all about, what we do and what we have," he said.
And if the 167th Airlift Wing get the call, it certainly has the necessary horsepower.
"It requires a minimum of a C-5 to do what we do," Hubert said.
Zoldos said the exercise allowed the team to be tested in a realistic environment such as an air base, getting them to "enplane and deplane" as well as manifest. He praised the 167th Airlift Wing for its efforts in the grueling training endeavor.
"We are simulating a 10-day deployment in 56 hours," Hubert said.
And although Virginia Task Force 1 doesn't have an official motto, Zoldos said "Ready Wherever, Whenever" might not be a bad idea.
But Hubert thought "Always Willing" summed it up best.
For more information about Virginia Task Force 1 log onto www.vatf1.org.