Mock disaster readies Academy firefighters

Airman 1st Class Edgardo Rodriguez-Hernandez assists a crash victim, an exercise role- player, in need of  medical transport during an emergency response exercise at the Air Force Academy July 22, 2013. Rodriguez-Hernandez is a firefighter with the Academy's 10th Civil Engineer Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sam Lee)

Airman 1st Class Edgardo Rodriguez-Hernandez assists a crash victim, an exercise role- player, in need of medical transport during an emergency response exercise at the Air Force Academy July 22, 2013. Rodriguez-Hernandez is a firefighter with the Academy's 10th Civil Engineer Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sam Lee)

A Colorado National Guard UH-1 Iriqois descends toward a training area at the Air Force Academy July 22, 2013. First responders from the Guard, the Academy's 10th Civil Engineer Squadron and other local agencies took part in a joint exercise to test their interagency communication skills. Fires in the Colorado Springs area have killed four people, destroyed more than 800 homes and burned more than 30,000 acres of land in 2012 and 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sam Lee)

A Colorado National Guard UH-1 Iriqois descends toward a training area at the Air Force Academy July 22, 2013. First responders from the Guard, the Academy's 10th Civil Engineer Squadron and other local agencies took part in a joint exercise to test their interagency communication skills. Fires in the Colorado Springs area have killed four people, destroyed more than 800 homes and burned more than 30,000 acres of land in 2012 and 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sam Lee)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Army National Guard helicopters buzzed over the Academy and firefighters rushed to aid victims in a simulated plane crash July 22 as part of a multi-agency emergency response exercise in preparation for a catastrophic event.

Twelve military and civilian Academy firefighters along with the Colorado National Guard, El Paso County Search and Rescue, and the Douglas County Incident Management Team participated in Exercise "Vigilant Guard." They responded to a mock plane crash at the Academy's Fire and Emergency Training Area, treating and transporting injured victims for further care.

"It's like worst-case scenario," said Staff Sgt. Nicole Longwell, Academy firefighter and station captain for Fire Station 1. "Essentially, it was a plane crash in the middle of a wildfire burn area, and we were called for EMS support."

The Academy provided a location and a 50-foot mobile aircraft fire trainer for the exercise, used here annually during live-fire drills. Firefighters triaged 15 Moulaged role-players at the scene.

"This is one of the few times we actually train on mass causalities," said Staff Sgt. Jacob Frey, an Academy firefighter and station captain at Fire Station 1. "It's nice to a get a bigger picture of what's happening and what other agencies would be doing too."

Although firefighters met the goal of the exercise, Longwell said the Fire Department could improve as a team and when working with other agencies.

"The goal was to get all the victims transported and we did in a timely manner," Longwell said. "When we arrived on site, it wasn't what we thought it would be, and we had to switch directions, changing how we thought about the situation and how we were going to approach it. Once we sorted things out, it ran smoothly and was great practice."

Longwell said the Academy is becoming more integrated in the Colorado Springs community.

"I think the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires showed us that we need more practice working together to solve the community's problem instead of, 'This is our district, don't worry about us,"' Longwell said. "This kind of exercise is really going to help us come together well when we do have an incident and it'll be flawless if we continue with it."

The exercise isn't far from reality, Frey said.

"It's a realistic scenario that could happen," Frey said. "We have wildfires all the time and if a plane was to crash right in the middle of it, that would be horrible."

Three Colorado National Guard helicopters flew in for search and follow-on infiltration of the ground search and rescue team, according to Lt. Col. Mitchell Utterback, the Colorado National Guard's interagency and liaison officer.

"This exercise occurs once every four years in the United States," Utterback said. "The training aids to support a downed aircraft search and survivor triage and treatment. It's great cooperation between the Academy and interagency partners, all working to improve our mutual response to a disaster."

He said all agency representatives know each other on a first name basis and worked together during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

"We are not resting, and continue to work to improve our ability to respond to disasters in Colorado," Utterback said.

National Guard units from Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming participated in the week-long exercise. The last portion of Vigilant Guard takes place July 26 at the Colorado National Guard Joint Operations Center in Centennial.