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October 28, 2011

Pa. Nat'l Guard tests mass-casualty readiness

By Brad Rhen
The Lebanon Daily News

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. — With the aid of dozens of actors playing casualties, members of the Pennsylvania National Guard's Homeland Response Force on Thursday conducted a mass-casualty exercise to test their readiness.

The scenario of the exercise, which began Wednesday and continues today, was a bomb with a possible chemical element detonating at a football stadium.

"Our unit has been called to provide mitigation of human suffering and life-saving decontamination to the civilians that were casualties in that incident," said Lt. Col. Fred Tady, commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERF-P, which is a part of the Homeland Response Force.

The exercise included dozens of actors hired by a temp agency who wore makeup to simulate injuries, some of them gruesome. While a majority of the Guard members set up medical and decontamination tents, the actors harassed other Guard members who were providing security and not letting the casualties inside the clean area.

Once the casualties were let in, they were triaged, decontaminated in showers, given clean clothing and blankets and treated for their injuries. The casualties who could not walk were placed on backboards and rolled through decontamination and medical tents on a conveyor system.

Another phase of the exercise involved a search-and-extraction team rescuing casualties from a rubble pile that simulates a collapsed structure.

Maj. Mark Thomas, who recently relinquished command of the CERF-P to Tady, said exercises such as this one are important.

"This is the key means that we have of training the soldiers and giving them the closest thing we can to a real-world experience," Thomas said.

In addition to treating the casualties of the imagined explosion, the Guard members also had to decontaminate their own, said Air Force 2nd Lt. Joann Kennedy, a nurse from the 111th Medical Group from Willow Grove. After being decontaminated themselves, the soldiers and airmen were evaluated, and if they don't pass muster, they can't go back in, she said.

"We can't have our own going down inside, because then we'd have to send more to go in and get them," she added. "So we have to take care of our own soldiers and airmen."

Kennedy, who is an intensive-care unit nurse in Philadelphia, said exercises such as this are crucial.

"It's important for us to get all this down so if something were to happen, God forbid, there is no doubt in my mind that we could be up and ready in less time than they give us," she said.

Among the actors portraying casualties was Mark Dietrich of Harrisburg. An Air Force veteran who now works for the Navy in Mechanicsburg, Dietrich said he participated neither for the $8 an hour the actors were paid nor the opportunity to be outside for several hours in the cold and rainy weather.

"I feel it's a valuable tool for them to practice," he said. "Even though they don't pay you a whole lot, it doesn't really matter to me."

"Help them get experience, find their flaws so they can retune themselves to make sure then when there is a real incident, they can perform properly," he added.

Dietrich said he actually had fun harassing some of the Guard members earlier in the day before the casualties were let in to be decontaminated and treated.

"Trying to get into their heads and mess them up, give them some good practice so when they run into the scenarios they're ready," he said.

Thomas said the civilian role players add a sense of realism and urgency to the exercise.

"If we respond to an incident, there are going to be casualties there that need our immediate care, but at the same time, we have to ensure that the system is set up so we can properly protect our own troops so they can continue on with the mission," he said.

Although Thursday's cold and rainy weather made things a little sloppy and miserable, Thomas said the weather was no hindrance for the exercise.

"We're assuming we're going to go into the worst conditions possible," he said. "By the time we arrive, local responders - volunteer fire departments, paid EMS services - they've already been on site for possibly several days, so the conditions you see around us, the mud the rain, that's probably what we're going to be going in to."

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