Combat engineers tunnel into leveled buildings to save lives

By on Monday, November 21st, 2011

Responding to a simulated improvised nuclear device in downtown Phoenix as part of the 2011 Arizona Statewide Vigilant Guard exercise, about 60 combat engineers from the 235th Engineer Company (Sapper), 579th Engineer Battalion, 49th Military Police Brigade, California Army National Guard, out of Petaluma, Calif., picked up their ropes and jackhammers and dug into the destroyed city, Nov. 4-5.

Consisting of more than 250 agencies and 8,000 participants from six states, Vigilant Guard was the largest statewide emergency exercise Arizona has ever conducted, and was designed to enhance their disaster preparedness.

More than 500 California National Guardsmen took part in the exercise, responding to the improvised nuclear device, or IND, attack just as they would in a real-world situation.

The 235th Sappers provided one of the most important missions there following a massive disaster — Search and Extraction. Working with a large-scale simulated disaster site that included crushed buildings, overturned vehicles, a four-story tower and live victims, the Sappers located injured persons and worked through the night creating paths for medics to reach them.

While search and extraction of victims has traditionally been a mission for local fire fighters, the need for more manpower and the ever-growing nature of the National Guard has allowed military units throughout the country to train as search and extraction teams tasked with being on site within six hours of an actual disaster.

The 235th, who continues to train for their overseas mission, is ready to respond to any natural or terrorist disaster where search and extraction is needed, and no one is better suited for the mission than Sappers.

“As a combat engineer, your job is to remove obstacles. In Afghanistan we did route clearance,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lunsford, the Breaching and Breaking platoon sergeant for the search and extraction team, about the unit’s 2009 deployment. “Our job was to remove IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and enemy combatants from the battlefield. Here, what we’re doing is removing rocks from the battlefield and different types of obstacles, so they go hand in hand. Removal of obstacles, that’s our primary mission.”

To ensure top performance during an emergency, all members of the 235th Search and Extraction team attend a week-long Response International Group, or RIG, course in Oklahoma City run by several firefighters, where they learn basic search and extraction techniques such as creating and navigating confined spaces, building and placing shoring structures to prevent collapse and breaking through obstacles to rescue victims.

“At the RIG school, each day focuses on different core concepts of search and extraction, like you’re rappelling one day, and the next you’re breaching and breaking in confined spaces,” said Pfc. Sheridan Low, a member of the Breaching and Breaking platoon. “It’s inspiring what these guys do. A lot of the instructors were at the Oklahoma City bombing disaster. It’s no joke. But at the same time, it can be a lot of fun working with these guys and getting in the nitty gritty.”

The same RIG instructors also designed and built the intricate and life-like disaster training area used in Phoenix during Vigilant Guard known as “The Rubble Pile.”

“A lot of people are under the misconception that when stuff collapses, blows up, or whatever, it just goes into a jillion pieces and rains down all over theplace,” said Ronnie Sallee, an Oklahoma City firefighter and RIG instructor. “But there’s really a method to the madness on how things collapse. There’s a technique to how buildings come down and so we’ve gone in there and made a little myriad of mazes in there. It just looks like a big rubble pile from the outside, but with your search cameras and your sound systems, you’ll know there’s a void down there.”

“[The biggest challenge was] how tight the confined spaces were,” said Spc. Troy Lynch, a member of the Shoring and Cribbing platoon. “We were squeezing into the areas. Even our smaller guys were twisting and turning to get in there. It’s what they’re actually going to see [in a real situation] instead of some of the other piles that slide up and down. This one wasn’t just north and south, it was all over the place. So there’s times when you’re going up and sideways, other times you’re squeezing through holes. That was new. It was a good experience.”

Clad in gas masks, Kevlar helmets and radiation detectors, the engineers first made their way through the realistic rubble pile by methodically assessing the damage and casualties alongside medics from the 144th Fighter Wing, California Air National Guard. Wounded victims who could walk were directed to a decontamination tent, while non-ambulatory victims and areas where victims could be trapped were marked for later rescue.

“It’s a slow, tedious process,” explained Sallee. “But, we can go down range, get the people on the street, all of them who are disoriented or laying there, whatever the case may be. Then, we start digging a little bit deeper and we can get the ones that are trapped on the surface. Then we use our search cameras and our vibration sound systems to get an idea of where people are going to be most likely. We’ll listen to that or make entry, shore up a building to make entry into this or that and just go from there.”

Once as many victims were out of the way as possible, the Search and Extraction team began digging tunnels, securing loose rubble and vehicles and climbing through the tower in order to aid trapped victims. To better manage large areas, the team was split into three platoons — Ropes, Breaching and Breaking, and Shoring and Cribs.

The Ropes platoon utilized rigs to lower victims off buildings or out of holes. They also used pulleys as leverage to move large objects or to keep them stationary so they didn’t fall during a rescue attempt.

The Breaching and Breaking platoon used tools such as jackhammers and large saws to create holes and tunnels in order to reach trapped victims. If their tools were broken or unavailable, the Breaching and Breaking team used boards and leverage to get the job done.

“Being combat engineers, we’re pretty resourceful,” said Lunsford. “We have guys on the civilian side who do a lot in the construction trade. We try to build our teams around guys who have different skill assets in the civilian world that will apply to their S and E job, so when we come across a situation where we don’t have that tool, we request it, wait for that tool to get there and if it doesn’t happen, then we find a way to improvise.”

The Shoring and Cribbing platoon created safe zones within the rubble by building and placing stabilizing structures that prevented further collapse during rescue operations.

While each platoon had its own roles, the whole team is cross-trained and must work together to accomplish their missions.

“We do a little bit of everything,” said Lynch. “It’s pretty seamless. You jump in and you’ve got a mission to do, and you kind of gel pretty quickly and you’re good to go in.”

The training mission also gave the engineers the opportunity to work with other military and civilian agencies. Throughout the two-day training mission, the 235th Engineer Company rotated 24-hour operations with a Search and Rescue team from Colorado.

“One of the primary purposes of this mission was for us to work with another CERFP (Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear, and Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package) team in the nation and be able to work along side each other,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Morey of Dixon, Calif., the 235th operations sergeant. “We fall in on their equipment, they use our equipment, we know how they operate, they know how we operate, so in real world, we can just show up.”

Despite some delayed training due to lightning, and cold conditions caused by a heavy down pour of rain, the troops said this was some of the best training they’ve had.

“I’ve loved every minute. Rain or not, it was a great mission and I learned a lot,” said Lynch.

“It’s a great simulated disaster,” added Low. “It’s always a thrill to be able to work and train in that environment because where else are you going to find a simulated disaster with confined spaces that we can get in and do what we’ve been training to do? Overall, great job. Like always.”

The teamwork, training, extensive planning and coordinated efforts were clear to many of the observers and controllers who oversaw the exercise, as well as the 235th leadership.

“The Sappers come in every time and really bust their butts to get these missions done,” said 2nd Lt. Shane Guswiler, the executive officer for the 235th. “These guys have real motivation, breaking, breaching, ropes, they’re all trained up. They have a good basic knowledge … awesome, awesome guys.”

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