Maine puts emergency responders to the test during Vigilant Guard exercise

By Sgt. Angela Parady 121st Public Affairs Detachment

BRUNSWICK, Maine - A major winter ice storm bringing nearly three feet of snow and frigid temperatures leaves hundreds of thousands without power. An ice arena collapses with an unknown number of people inside; later that night there is a suspected terrorist attack at a major government facility. A suspected anthrax lab has been reported, and hazardous material has leaked on a ship coming into Portland International Marina.

This culmination of events was only an exercise to test the preparedness of emergency management systems in Maine, but it could happen. To be better prepared, emergency aid agencies and National Guard soldiers from seven states, and first responders participated in a Vigilant Guard exercise in Maine, Nov. 5-8.

Every year, NGB and the U.S. Northern Command pick four locations to host the exercise. Each location is in a different FEMA region, so the likelihood of a state being able to host the event more than once is rare. The goal of the program is to enhance both National Guard and state emergency preparedness.

All of the participants work together to assess storm damage, identify hazmat threats, decontamination, search and rescue, patient extraction, triage, and other emergency-response measures. Working side by side and being able to recognize one another helps develop relationships before they are in the emergency situation.

Lt. Col. Diane Dunn, a Maine Army National Guard soldier who works for Joint Force Headquarters said that the exercise has met every goal they set out to accomplish, primarily networking and developing resources.

“Every single time you get military partners working side by side with civilians they establish relationships, and that is probably the most important thing,” said Dunn.

“Understanding who the leaders are, and what tasks belong to whom, so when you have to support someone, you already know their strengths and weaknesses and where you fit into that picture. Those experiences make this exercise more valuable.”

During the last 13 months, Dunn has worked very closely with Maine Emergency Management Agency Exercise Officer, Jeremy Damren. They worked directly with NGB and NORTHCOMM to plan the event. He agreed that communication is essential to developing working relationships.

“Many of our responders here would be the same people responding to our neighboring states as well,” said Damren. “So now, we recognize these faces and can hopefully work a bit closer than had we just shown up. I think anytime you exchange business cards before an emergency its always better than doing it during the emergency.”

Although Maine has not had anything to this scale happen yet, it could happen. Emergency situations in New England, such as Hurricane Irene, or Hurricane Sandy that required a multistate response, have already happened, and this just helps train everyone to be better equipped.

Dunn, a native of Newburgh, Maine, said this training is the opportunity of a lifetime for the National Guard.

“It gives us the opportunity to not only understand the resources and capabilities the civilians have, but also our role,” she said. “How we support our civilians, and where we would fit into our communities and to make sure our families and our community members are safe. Most importantly, that can help response efforts like this.”

When a disaster strikes, trained, local emergency personnel respond first. When the first responders have expended their resources, the county comes in to assist. In a situation like Vigilant Guard, with multiple competing priorities, whether it is sheltering people, clearing roads, or just public safety in general, sometimes they too run out of resources.

That’s when MEMA enters the picture. They have a designated planning staff that is responsible for responding to emergencies. They can look at all the resources state wide and see where things can be shared. After the state exceeds all of their resources, they request National Guard assistance, and mutual aid partners in neighboring states, and federal agencies.

The military doesn’t step in and take over the situation. They are there to help aid and assist the first responders and other agencies already in place, said Damren, who lives in Belgrade.

“The adjutant general, who manages both us and the Maine National Guard, has said from the very beginning, that all disasters start local. So this military takeover would never happen. What would happen is we would work together.”

Working side by side, military and civilian responders extract, decontaminate and treat the victims at the collapsed building. Meanwhile, other crews have been called in to respond to nearly 20 other emergency events throughout the state, from cybersecurity breaches, to a contaminated ship coming into Portland. It took nearly 1,500 National Guard soldiers, hundreds of civilian medical and first responders and international partners working together to help mitigate the disaster.

Because events this extreme are not common in New England, this was an opportunity to demonstrate the National Guard and civilian agencies abilities to respond when called, and to train military soldiers for their response, said Dunn.

“It gave us the opportunity to exercise our main job; to defend our state and to respond in time of crisis,” she continued. “It is not something we do all the time, so its important that we dust off those plans and are familiar with what our tasks are and how we need to continue to train and prepare so we can meet the call when it comes in.”

Similarly, Damren was very happy with the overall exercise.

“Being able to strengthen the military and civilian relationship and reflect that we do all work together,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what uniform you wear, we are all here to do a job, so let’s just get to work, make people safe, and save lives.”