Iowa Air Guardsmen Train for Disaster Relief

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Sara Robinson
  • 132 Fighter Wing
Severe weather is on the forefront of all of our minds as we see the destruction caused by tornados in recent weeks. However, the Iowa Air National Guard is always prepared to fulfill their role in disaster relief. They recently trained with members of the Nebraska Air and Army National Guard to practice their search, recovery and decontamination disaster plan.

These guardsmen are all members of a group called the Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear and Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package (CERF-P). Their job is to provide immediate response capability to the Governor, searching an incident site, including damaged buildings; rescuing any casualties, decontaminating them, and performing medical triage and initial treatment to stabilize them for transport to a medical facility (this includes extracting anyone trapped in the rubble).

A vital element of that package is the 132 Fighter Wing's contribution as the Fatality Search and Recovery Team (FSRT). These services Airmen provide a valuable resource by collecting human remains in a respectful and dignified manner. They remove the fatalities from a contaminated area to a place where they can be properly cared for.

"The most important part of our job is knowing that we are getting the deceased back to their living relatives to help provide closure to anyone who may have experienced a loss in one of these situations," say Staff Sgt. Brandon King, FSRT member.

Fatality recovery is not a pretty job, it's not a happy job, but someone has to do it. Not just anyone can do it either. Individuals need to feel comfortable in their protective gear and able to move in confined spaces. They need to be physically fit and able to lift 200 pound mannequins in the 90 degree heat. Those are only the physical requirements. The mental toll can be much greater on a person.

"The hardest part of being part of the FSRT would be the need to recover the remains of children. They are so young and defenseless. It makes it worthwhile though being able to give the family their child so they can have a proper burial," says Tech. Sgt. Branden Hassett, FSRT team leader.

The FSRT team does a job that is not very popular but a vital role following any catastrophic event. They need to function in unfavorable conditions and deal with unthinkable sights, sounds and smells. A lesson that we learned after events like Katrina when remains where left in the view of citizens for days on end. This caused serious issues both mentally and on a public health standpoint.

"That is where we play a key role is during that initial shock. Because the faster you go into an environment to handle what has happened the better and easier the recovery is. The quicker people can hopefully go back to their normal lives. That's what we are here to do," explains Maj. Tim Pegg, FSRT OIC.

Some members of the team have experience dealing with the collection of remains. Hassett volunteered for the team after an experience overseas with a downed pilot. He was working mortuary affairs at the time and saw firsthand benefits of his mission. He said it makes the difficulty of collecting worthwhile to know that the pilot would be returned to his wife for a proper burial.

"I volunteered to be a part of the FSRT because they were having a hard time finding people. It's a hard job. I knew from my time overseas that this is something that I can mentally handle and not everyone can," explains Hassett.

Staff Sgt. Ryan King also has experience from his time overseas. His advice is to be as proficient as possible with all of the things that you can learn ahead of time because when you are faced with a real world casualty you never know what will happen.

"You can train with the equipment and get used to the Hazmat suits and know what you are going to do as far as operating procedures but until you have actually been down range and dealt with a situation like this, you really don't know how you are going to react," explains King.

Realism is the key to any training and this scenario based exercise is not different. Without being able to provide the real world situation to train in, trainers come as close as they can. They enlist the help of local actors and lots of fake blood. Their version of a tornado ravaged Omaha zoo is complete with collapsed buildings and confused citizens looking for loved ones. All of the buildings are fake and all of the people's injuries are makeup, but the teamwork needed to accomplish this mission is very real.

"Our team has been together for quite a while so they are an outstanding team. Some of the best people that we have in services are out here today. We have a highly motivated, highly technical team and they will accomplish the mission extremely well. I attribute that success to both the joint training and the individual training that we are able to accomplish throughout the exercise," says Pegg.

Decontamination plays a major part of what the team practices. Since the 'hot zone' is filled with a potential deadly gas, the team needs to know how to properly clean themselves of any contaminates. Everyone helps each other through the spraying and scrubbing of the suits and gear before they are cleared from the area.

The team has training on Hazardous Material procedures, different chemicals and handling remains. Their protective suites play a vital role in the exercise and being able to do their job. Even with all of this specialized and costly gear, Pegg says that they could not do the mission without his most important asset... his team of highly motivated Airmen.

"I think one of the most important things we have out here is our people. Without the people being motivated, trained and qualified to do their job, it just can't be done. Having these volunteers step up, take time off of their full time job time after time to show up for training has really contributed to a successful mission," says Pegg.

So until they are needed in a real world situation. The 132nd Fighter Wing's FSRT will continue training and being ready at a moment's notice in hopes that they will never be called up with the bad news that somewhere their services are needed.