Kentucky Air Guard establishes Missouri air hub for earthquake-relief exercise

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by Master Sgt. Philip Speck, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

EMTs from CoxHealth of Springfield, Mo., carry a mannequin into the back of a Kentucky Air Guard C-130 at Springfield-Branson National Airport in Springfield, Mo., on May 18, 2011, as part of National Level Exercise 2011. The exercise is based on a scenario involving a massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault line, requiring extensive aeromedical evacuation of injured patients. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Maxwell Rechel)

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo.  (May 19, 2011) — More than 40 members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s Contingency Response Element are operating a key patient-movement hub here as part of National Level Exercise 2011, a weeklong scenario designed to test the local, state and national response to a simulated 7.7-magnitude earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

The event, which began May 16, is billed as part of the largest joint exercise in U.S. history, with participation from emergency responders in eight central states, the National Guard and multiple federal entities like the Department of Defense, U.S. Transportation Command and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Lt. Col. Dave Mounkes, commander of the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Contingency Response Element.

Under the scenario, the 123rd CRE was tasked to deploy from its Louisville, Ky., base of operations to Springfield-Branson National Airport here and establish an air hub at the notionally inoperative airfield. The unit’s Airmen brought everything necessary to establish the hub and support inbound or outbound aircraft, providing command and control, satellite-based communications and cargo handling equipment, among other capabilities.

Once operational, which started following the arrival of the first aircraft, the unit began supporting a Defense Aeromedical Staging Facility to coordinate the aeromedical evacuation of injured patients to multiple reception centers around the country, Mounkes said. Those evacuation flights are being carried out by three C-130 aircraft from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing at the direction of U.S. Transportation Command.

“This is exactly what we can expect to see in the event of a real-world earthquake,” Mounkes said. “There will be a lot of injured patients who will need to be moved quickly and efficiently from the affected area to accepting hospitals throughout the United States. One key to making this work is knowing which patients are being sent where, so they can be tracked through the system. That’s why we’re working closely with the DASF throughout this exercise.”

Capt. Ross Birdsong, a nurse with the 60th Inpatient Operations Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and Sgt. Ursus Vargas of the 6th Medical Group, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., carry a mannequin onto a Kentucky Air Guard C-130 Hercules on May 17, 2011, on Springfield-Branson National Airport's flight line during National Level Exercise 2011. The exercise is based on a scenario involving a simulated earthquake along the New Madrid fault line. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Maxwell Rechel)

Mounkes noted that the Kentucky Air Guard is no stranger to operating initial-response air hubs. The unit opened the Alexandria Airfield Hub in Louisiana in support of aeromedical evacuations after Hurricane Katrina, and last year it operated the major airlift hub in the Dominican Republic supporting earthquake relief operations in Haiti.

But each new deployment or exercise provides a valuable opportunity to learn more, and NLE 2011 is no different, officials said.

“This has been a tremendous training experience for us because of the opportunity it’s providing to work with so many local, state and federal agencies,” said 2nd Lt. Matt Skeens, 123rd CRE logistics officer.

“Working with civilian agencies is always an important lesson, and that’s really been one of our primary focuses here: to integrate our processes with those of the civilian agencies like FEMA, local emergency management personnel and medical teams from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Being able to speak the same language is probably the most difficult thing we’ve had to do, and it’s also the thing we’ve learned the most about.”

This kind of training does more than enhance mission accomplishment, according to Master Sgt. James Nalley, the 123rd CRE’s maintenance flight chief. It also helps grow a new generation of leaders ready to answer the nation’s call any time a natural disaster strikes.

“Exercises like this are essential to developing the skills and confidence of our young Airmen,” Nalley said. “We’re already very good at what we do, but I feel like we can’t get enough of this stuff. It makes us better every time.”

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