SAN ANTONIO, Texas –
It wasn’t a usual night for San Antonio’s Retama Park Aug. 29. Within hours, one of the race track’s parking lots made to fit hundreds of cars was transformed into a city of tents.
Flood lights attached to generators spilled light on the perimeter of the hastily assembled transient town, as role players displaying cuts, burns and bruises started to surround the tents like a scene out of a horror movie.
Soldiers immediately flooded out of the tents tending to the wounded and directing the crowd into different lines where they would be further assessed, decontaminated and moved to a safe area.
The crowd was made up of civilians who had notionally been exposed to a chemical or biological agent. The soldiers and local first responders were there to save lives.
San Antonio first responders and active duty Army Soldiers of the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear response enterprise trained together as part of an interagency exercise Aug. 22-29 to improve readiness and preparedness in the event of a disaster similar to the one described above.
“Our goal is to save lives and mitigate suffering,” said Lt. Col. Hector Montemayor, commander, 2nd Chemical Battalion, out of Fort Hood, Texas. “There’s an urgency to this type of mission set that we want every soldier here to leave familiar with.”
Urgency is critical when responding to a CBRN event, but there are also obstacles to overcome.
Military and civilian first responders communicate and operate differently. Which is natural when one considers the responsibilities each holds.
“Coordinating with local first responders, the biggest challenge is the dialogue,” said Capt. Joshua Marshall, company commander, 411th Military Police Company, 720th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade. “There are different terms and lingo, but at the end of the day we all understand the goal, which is to save lives and mitigate suffering,”
Marshall acted as a liaison to San Antonio first responders through the duration of the exercise, coordinating movement and providing solutions to requests for equipment and capabilities the military can provide to local first responders.
“We’re not doing law enforcement during these events,” said Marshall, who was a part of the initial relief effort after Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast.
“We’re diverse in what we do,” Marshall said. “We do not have weapons. We’re here to advise and assist local responders and fall into the role of logistics enablers and assisting in disaster relief efforts where needed.”
Interagency exercises like the ones that took place last week in San Antonio help both soldiers and local first responders understand the capabilities each can provide.
“Some don’t understand the exact capabilities we can provide,” said Marshall. “Responding to Harvey, we did have to explain what we were capable of as active-duty forces deployed in the United States.”
At the same time, first responders want service members to know what it’s like to fall under a civilian command structure.
In order to do that, U.S. Army North contracts experienced professionals to play the part of the incident commander during these exercises.
For this exercise Tom Phillips, a retired fire chief out of Palm Beach County, Fla., who worked during the response to Hurricane Andrew and acted as the incident commander for the exercise, provided that experience for the soldiers.
“That’s always something I attempt to strive for,” Phillips said. “What it’s going to feel like talking to a Tom Phillips, or incident commander, on the civilian side. We communicate differently. So when you come here as a soldier, you have to understand the environment you’re operating in. And so far, everything has gone really well over every iteration.”
During the exercise participants worked out of multiple venues to include Camp Bullis, the San Antonio Fire Training Center, Freeman Coliseum and Retama Park.
“We want our soldiers to leave here knowing and understanding that the repetitions we put in here will carry over into a similar real world situation,” Montemayor said.