Massive regional disaster drill draws inspiration from tornado response

Officials take part in a collapsed building scenario during The Vigilant Guard exercise out at Camp Blanding in Starke on Tuesday.

Doug Finger/Staff photograper
Published: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 5:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 5:08 p.m.

CAMP BLANDING -- Watching the backbreaking work being done to free the injured and retrieve the dead from flattened slabs or mountainous piles of concrete, it didn't take much imagination to think the scene was Moore, Okla.

But on Tuesday, the National Guard and other first responders pulling people from the debris, triaging and treating their injuries, and disposing of hazardous materials were at Camp Blanding for a massive training operation called Vigilant Guard.

While the work was hot and tiring, Georgia National Guard Col. Vernon Atkinson said the troops learned through Monday's deadly Oklahoma tornadoes how valuable the training is.

“This morning everybody got up, and now we know why we do what we do,” Adkinson said. “Morale is high -- everybody is jumping in.”

Vigilant Guard is a yearly training exercise held in different parts of the country by the U.S. Northern Command working with civil agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Division of Emergency Management for response to hurricanes, disasters such as airline crashes, hazardous materials spills and similar incidents.

It is being held this year at Camp Blanding in Clay County east of Starke for the first time and has drawn about 2,100 participants including guard troops from Florida, Georgia and Colorado.

Camp Blanding, training headquarters for the Florida National Guard, is proving to be an ideal location. It already had several piles of rubble -- some as high as 20 feet and as wide as 30 to 40 feet -- to simulate collapsed buildings.

In one scenario, a road between a rubble pile and a mounded hill became a river, and the injured essentially had to be zip-lined across on ropes and pulleys created on the spot.

The camp also has intact buildings in which to play out scenarios such as a hazardous materials incident. In the basement of one building, a guardsman dressed in a 95-pound Kevlar suit, complete with an air-recycling system, trained at handling dangerous materials.

Brought in were dozens of hired people covered in fake blood to play roles of the injured or dead.

Even that was hard work given the conditions.

“I'm supposed to be a carcass, but it's getting really hot,” said one actor when he briefly stepped out of role to lift his head from the rubble to look.

Florida National Guard Lt. Col. Michael Ladd said the operation had been planned for about four years and cost at least $1 million, which included construction of a new training site in which shipping containers were placed on top of each other at odd angles to simulate partially collapsed buildings.

The federal government paid most of the cost. The primary goal is to enhance joint training between the guard and civilian agencies such as county emergency response teams so that operations and communication between them in real emergencies run as smoothly as possible.

“We want to find overlaps and gaps in the training to work toward integration,” Ladd said, adding that some of the National Guard members did similar search and rescue work while deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Vigilant Guard began Friday and continues through Thursday.

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