Our Voice: HAMMER an asset worth much to Tri-Cities, nation

We've seen the National Guard get called in to help with countless disasters and emergencies across our country this year, from the Boston Marathon bombing to tornadoes in the Midwest.

It seems the National Guard is always there to help and ready for anything.

That preparedness comes from training and practice. The Washington National Guard recently took advantage of the HAMMER facility in Richland to do just that.

Operation Evergreen Ember was aimed at rescuing victims of a mock chemical plant explosion. Soldiers and airmen gathered to train for the immediate response team. That team can be deployed to a disaster in Northwest locations and Alaska within six to 12 hours.

Ten teams trained to cover chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive disasters are operating in 10 regions. Washington's team has yet to be deployed, but wants to be ready at a moment's notice should the need arise.

The training exercise, which had actors complete with mock injuries, is a good reminder of what an asset we have in HAMMER.

HAMMER was dedicated to its founder, the late Tri-City leader Sam Volpentest. HAMMER stands for Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response.

Since the doors to the new facility were first opened in September 1997, HAMMER has played an integral role in preparing workers and emergency responders for high-risk tasks and the use of new technologies.

For those unfamiliar with the facility, here's a little history courtesy of HAMMER: HAMMER got its start in 1986 as a community-based initiative to improve training for hazardous materials workers, emergency responders and firefighters. Tri-County fire commissioners, the Benton-Franklin Regional Council and local labor councils developed the concept.

In 1994, Congress appropriated funds to begin operations in a temporary facility and initiate construction of the center. When it was done in September 1997, HAMMER was officially dedicated the Volpentest HAMMER Training and Education Center in honor of Sam's tenacity, skills and selfless commitment.

Since then, it has been used by a wide range of groups for valuable training. First responders can access weapons and SWAT training and firefighting classes at the facility. Department of Energy folks can take classes there, as can construction workers needing safety training for work at the Hanford site.

HAMMER is owned by DOE, and its primary use is to train Hanford workers. But it is more diverse than that.

Several tribes have worked with HAMMER for college-accredited intertribal fire and law enforcement training. Along with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the tribes also have worked to develop a seven-acre Cultural Test Bed. Among other things, it is used for training to identify and investigate potentially looted cultural sites.

HAMMER is truly an amazing resource for our community, state and nation. Sometimes we forget how remarkable the offerings are in our community.

We may not see what's happening at HAMMER on a daily basis, but big exercises like this recent one get attention and remind us of the important work done right here at home that will help save lives and aid recovery efforts across the nation.