Washington disaster team stands ready

Washington state Homeland Response Force has yet to be activated

By Melissa Renahan on May 15, 2014

In response to world events, the Department of Defense established 10 regionally oriented Homeland Response Forces (HRF), sourced from the National Guard, to pair with the country's FEMA regions. In 2011, Washington was the second HRF stood up and is responsible for FEMA Region 10, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.

The HRF operates as a brigade-level command and can control other assets at any given time, from up to 10 Civil Support Teams (CSTs) and six Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and high yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package teams (CERFPs).

A CST is brought in for incidents where there may be an intentional or unintentional release of nuclear, biological, radiological or toxic/poisonous chemical materials. The CERFP is also comprised of Washington National Guard soldiers and airmen who are trained and certified in mass casualty ambulatory and non-ambulatory decontamination, search and extraction, medical triage and stabilization and fatality search and recovery.

"We have excellent capabilities to respond to manmade and natural disasters and the Guard has always been uniquely positioned to deal with these issues on a national level," said Maj. Aaron Bert, executive officer for the Washington National Guard's HRF.

The HRF, which is called into action by the governor's office, can mobilize within 12 hours and can self-sustain for up to five days, from food and water to communications, so that they are not a drain on the community that they are sent to help.

"The big difference between us and a military response is that we are there to plug into the civilian command, help with control and then we go where they tell us to," said Bert, who has served in the Guard for more than 20 years.

HRF is comprised of both Army and Air Guardsmen who are placed on specialized orders during a HRF call. In total, there are 577 personnel assigned to the HRF and for each this is a secondary assignment next to their primary role in the Washington National Guard, meaning that they must meet all of their regular National Guard commitments, as well as the HRF trainings and certifications.

"You can change your MOS and get into a HRF-aligned unit, but when it comes down to it, all guardsmen will be involved in domestic operations regardless of whether it is through HRF," said Bert, who also serves as the chief of operations for the WAARNG 144th Digital Liaison Detachment.

"What the HRF has are individuals who understand emergency management and essentially speak two languages - military and local first responder," Bert explained. "There are definitely gaps between the two and that came to light especially after the Oso mudslide disaster."

Less than 48 hours after the incident in Oso, HRF was notified and then staff was on the ground within another 12 hours. In total, 65 members of the HRF team were on the ground providing direct support and, eventually, there were over 200 members helping to search the mud pile, perform remains recovery and decontaminating those being rescued.

"While it was not a HRF-run incident, we were able to help and that felt good," he said.

In fact, the Washington HRF has yet to be fully activated for a call, which Bert admits is a great thing. This June the HRF team will undergo an external evaluation, which is conducted every three years, in order to maintain their certification.

"I believe there will continue to be a growing need for these services and I want to be a part of it," Bert concluded.