By Edwin Wriston
Members of the West Virginia National Guard met with personnel from the West Virginia Emergency Management Division at EMD headquarters in Dunbar, W.Va., Mar. 10, 2021, to coordinate planning for a national-level full-scale exercise to be held in West Virginia later this summer.
Vigilant Guard is an annual all-hazards exercise program sponsored by United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM) in conjunction with the National Guard Bureau (NGB), with support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The exercise brings together responders from the local, state, and federal levels, including military, government agencies, private sector partners and others, to work in a joint operational environment simulating a large-scale emergency or disaster event. VG helps to build joint and interagency partnerships and response capabilities while accomplishing National Guard and State Emergency Management objectives.
West Virginia was selected to host the multi-day event in 2021, which will bring participants from as far away as Florida, Massachusetts and Illinois to train together through multiple scenarios and at various locations within the Mountain State. Total participation from both local, state and national agencies and organizations will likely exceed 1,000.
VG exercises highlight the need for building operational relationships, identifying and enhancing shared and unique capabilities, improving whole-of-government coordination, and refining response plans between military and civilian agencies and partners against homeland security threats prior to major events occurring. The exercise program management, design and development, conduct, evaluation, and improvement planning falls under the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP).
“The Emergency Management Division recognizes the importance of participating in full-scale exercises with our partners,” said EMD Director G.E. McCabe. “These exercises allow us to execute our response, gain skill with processes and identify any gaps before a real emergency occurs.”
The VG scenario for 2021 will center around a stalled hurricane hovering over West Virginia, dropping massive amounts of water over a large section of the state in a very short period of time. Participants will have to address this massive rainfall and storm event which will create flash flooding, mudslides, and dam breaches and failures leading to road obstructions/closures, as well as mandatory community evacuations, sheltering needs, and citizen and animal/livestock rescues. Response efforts will include swift water boat and aerial rescue operations, along with wildland and urban search and rescue missions.
Participants will also be faced with Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) accident response as a part of the scenario, including mock train derailments and tanker truck wrecks, and other hazards such as gas line ruptures, explosions and resulting fires.
Additional graded functions will include overall command and control decisions and actions, public information and hazard alert messaging, and interoperable communications capabilities, all in a joint operations environment that responders often have to work in during large-scale natural or manmade disasters.
“We couldn’t be more excited to host VG 2021 in West Virginia,” stated Walter “Wally” Hatfield, Director of Joint Operations for the WVNG. “This event will bring more than a thousand military personnel, first responders, and private sector partners with a wide scope of subject matter expertise into the state and will allow us to highlight the training opportunities and nationally important capabilities we are striving to build here in West Virginia. This is a win-win for everyone involved and an event we hope will serve as a model for future interagency exercises here at home.”
Primary operations for the exercise will take place in Clay, Nicholas, Fayette, and Kanawha counties, with additional state and local agencies from around the state participating either virtually or through asset and resource deployment to the exercise area.
“Because all emergencies start and finish at the local level, we encourage all responders within the operational areas to participate with these exercises,” said McCabe. “This is an excellent opportunity to apply emergency response skills and form strategic partnerships for the future.”
Each year, VG is held in a different FEMA region. West Virginia is in FEMA Region III, which also includes Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Recent VG exercises have been held in Massachusetts, Georgia, Guam, and New Mexico. This is the first time West Virginia has been selected to host the exercise.