There are several important pieces of equipment firefighters wear that make up their Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) or “turnout gear.” Of all the specialized pieces, the most distinct for Cheyenne Sanchez is a photo of his sister inside his fireman’s helmet.
“When I suit-up to go into a building that is on fire, the helmet is the last piece of equipment to go onto my head, and her picture is the last thing I see as I go into a life-threatening situation,” Sanchez said, describing how essential a ‘safety first’ approach is heading into harm’s way.
“It’s that final reminder that I need to return home safely to the people that I love and who care about me.”
Sanchez, a firefighter with Capital City Fire and Rescue in Juneau, Alaska, is one of many key first responders and volunteers, from both the U.S. military and civilian sectors supporting the Gobi Wolf 2019 exercise taking place in Sainshand, Mongolia from Sept. 9 -21, 2019. He was specially recruited by the Alaska State hazardous materials (HAZMAT) team coordinator, Megan Kroller to instruct firefighter and HAZMAT response training.
“At the international level, I’ve never done anything like this before coming here,” he said, describing how the range of experience with his Mongolian counterparts differed from person to person. “We had folks with just six-months all the way up to 20 years of experience, and it added to the challenges, but in many ways, it helped us move quickly through drills where ‘everyone got it,’ so we could focus on more specific group needs.”
The two-week exercise was designed to bolster the Mongolian civil authorities and national defense response to potential disaster situations while employing vital strategic communication and integrating foreign humanitarian assistance into emergency-management positions.
“I really wanted to hammer home this idea of safety and HAZMAT response,” Sanchez said, contrasting his rural Alaska background where fewer numbers of first responders play a vital role to ensure mission success.
“As the week went on, I got the impression that if there was a major catastrophic event, they would send as many bodies as they can to fix the problem,” he said. “We [in Alaska] don’t have an unlimited amount of resources and personnel – so if one firefighter or rescuer gets injured, that is a failure of the event for us; emphasizing personal safety it something I wanted each of them to get, so that they could go home to their families too.”
The Mongolian Armed Forces and the Mongolian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) as part of the United States Army Pacific’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief “Pacific Resilience” series hosted the Gobi Wolf exercise. Mongolia has an ongoing State Partnership with Alaska and during this year’s exercise, the Oregon National Guard played a key role in supporting all groups during the training.
Whether it was rope rescue, search and extraction, or collapsed structures, the Oregon CERFP members quickly discovered that their Mongolian partners were curious in the teaching techniques and hands-on experience offered throughout the exercise.
“They [NEMA members] had limited experience with shoring and structural collapse but they quickly adapted to the techniques and equipment we use to build structural collapse systems,” said Oregon National Guard Sgt. Joseph Duchscherer, assigned to the 1186th Military Police Company and CERFP Search and Extraction team leader.
With a team of five other Guardsmen, they worked through a full week of training in an abandoned facility that proved to be an ideal exercise site for multiple scenarios. Often the location had two and three training projects taking place at the same time; from rope teams rappelling from the rooftops to jackhammers noisily cutting through concrete, and search and rescue dogs curiously roving through the old factory floors.
“In many ways, this exercise was a little more ‘real-world’ in nature because lumber is scarce in this part of the country – to do this work you have to make the best of what resources are available,” Duchscherer said.
“It was also great to compare and contrast other best practices techniques because the NEMA rescue unit members are seasoned professionals too.”
The planning for the exercise started months in advance and included subject-matter experts to meet the specific request made by local NEMA officials.
“In February of this year we started planning this exercise and had a large window of time to build it, but it wasn’t until the end that we had all of the specialized experts in place to meet the program,” said Lt. Col. Eric Slayter, U.S. Army Pacific Director, Northeast Asia Civil-Military Operations and exercise director.
The Gobi Wolf 2019 exercise had 21 different training classes up from just eight during the previous year’s exercise. Slayter said that this greatly expanded the need for both the quality and quantity of instructors to fill the large agenda.
“Many of these aspects for Gobi Wolf 19 pin-pointed technical exchange and in-depth course work, which is why we brought in groups like the Forestry Service to talk about incident command systems, and other specialized areas in disaster management systems, public affairs, and medical treatment.”
This year’s Gobi Wolf exercise also hosted a conference on Women’s Peace and Security, highlighting the need to focus on vulnerable populations where women are primarily responsible for children and elderly members of the family.
The engagement is a critical part of the Government of Mongolia’s ability to prepare for an unforeseen crisis. However, these crises are not only unique to Mongolia but are prevalent throughout the Indo-Pacific.
“We do this to build lasting relationships with partner nations, not just military and government agencies – but to foster broader cooperation to effectively respond to disasters,” Slayter said, all the while emphasizing other non-governmental organizations integral role in the exercise.
“The Alaska civilians and other first responder filled critical areas and were incredible subject-matter experts.”
One of those experts was Don Werhonig, assistant fire chief of Fairbanks North Star Bureau HAZMAT Team. After serving in the U.S. Army for 10 years, he transitioned to working hazards materials for the past 18 years. The training was not far from his heart, working alongside American military members and their Mongolian counterparts.
“I loved everything about being a squad leader (in the Army) and working with my troops and supporting their specific needs,” he said, recalling his prior service experience working with uniformed personnel. “So it was easy for me to share and relate to their (NEMA) unit structure and needs.”
The training allowed NEMA rescue unit members to go in-depth on many hazards chemicals that could impact large portions of the population in the Dornogovi Province in the event of earthquakes, train derailments and the various destructive effects from random sand storms in the Gobi Desert.
“This has been one of the best real-world experiences I’ve ever done, and I enjoyed the interaction with our NEMA host members and their engagement in the classroom,” he said.
These agency-to-agency interactions strike at the core of the exercise; comparing similar disaster response capabilities, yet providing a platform for NEMA to further develop and manage environmental and hazardous material disaster responses in specific areas around the country.
On the final day of the Gobi Wolf exercise, an after-action review allowed participants to provide feedback on the complexity of the training and develop improvements for future training.
Addressing the participants, Col. Nuganbayar Batmunch, deputy chief of NEMA highlighted the training between the two nations.
“This has been 14 days of amazing training where we could organize and gain great knowledge with our American colleagues,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “During Gobi Wolf, we were able to share and build on a common desire; where we strive to meet the needs of others when disaster and recovery operations are critically needed.”