More than 250 members of the Washington National Guard used the HAMMER facility in Richland on Wednesday as a training site to practice their response to a major disaster.
The exercise, called Operation Evergreen Ember, focused on rescuing victims of a mock chemical plant explosion.
The soldiers and airmen were training for the Guard’s immediate response team, which can be ready to deploy to a disaster within six to 12 hours in Washington, Oregon, Idaho or Alaska.
The Guard has such teams — which cover major chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive disasters — in 10 regions across the nation, said Lt. Col. James Bridgman, commander of the 420th Chemical Battalion.
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Washington’s region never has had to deploy its teams, Bridgman said. Their mission is to help with search and rescue, decontamination and medical support, among other duties.
“We make sure we are ready to go at a moment’s notice to save the people of Washington,” Bridgman said. “We stay ready and relevant.”
The training was scripted like a real-life catastrophe. Bridgman arrived and was briefed by a “fire chief” in charge of the scene. The teams assist local law enforcement and fire agencies and don’t automatically assume control of a disaster area.
Soldiers and airmen then began setting up tents, which serve as decontamination, triage and medical stations. The drill was timed by commanders and took about 70 minutes.
Then the victims of the explosion started coming in for treatment. Actors, with fake blood and injuries, were sent to a triage station and evaluated, then sent to a decontamination area to rinse off.
The actors rinsed themselves with multiple shower heads hanging from a wall. Those who couldn’t walk because of their “injuries” were placed on gurneys and rolled through the decontamination area, where they were sprayed down.
In a real disaster, the National Guard uses a “killing agent” for washing, with the exact mixture varying according to the victims’ contamination levels. They’re then checked head to toe with an Improved Chemical Agent Monitor, or ICAM, which scans a person’s body for radiation.
The actors were then redressed and sent to medical tents. In a real disaster, citizens would either be sent to the hospital or released to their families. The entire assessment and decontamination took around 20 minutes.
“It’s a very complicated process that requires a high skill set,” said Col. James Rollins, commander of the Homeland Response Force.
Most of the soldiers and airmen involved are traditional members of the National Guard, meaning they report to duty one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. About 20 percent are full-time employees, Bridgman said.
The scenario was a trial run for another exercise next year involving about 900 people, Rollins said.
The National Guard also held another training exercise Wednesday in Yakima focusing on wildfires.
The 80-acre HAMMER facility, built in 1997, is owned by the Department of Energy and is primarily used to train Hanford workers, said Gary Karnofski, HAMMER business manager. The space is rented out to agencies across the nation when Hanford workers aren’t training.