Ohio Guard tests disaster response with civilian partners

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Vigilant Guard kicked off Monday with a flurry of activity, with first responders and emergency management personnel from across Ohio working together during a variety of disaster scenarios designed to test their skills and their teamwork.

Involving more than 90 local, state and federal agencies, building interagency communication and interoperability is the focus of the exercise.

"It's not only a Guard exercise, but it's also a whole of government exercise," said Brig. Gen. Stephen Rhoades, the exercise director for Vigilant Guard 19-4 and commander of the Ohio Army National Guard Special Troops Command (Provisional). "How different parts of government, including volunteers, come together; it's about how we connect, it's who we coordinate with. So, when these things do happen, we know what we can bring to bear."

Vigilant Guard is a training exercise program sponsored by U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), in conjunction with the National Guard Bureau.

It provides civil-military first responders and emergency management personnel the opportunity to evaluate their capabilities and identify areas for improvement, in the most realistic, large-scale disaster scenarios possible.

This iteration, being conducted Aug. 5-9 at 11 sites around Ohio, is the largest exercise in the history of the state, with more than 3,000 first responders (including about 850 Ohio National Guard members) teaming up for the four-day exercise. For some, it will be the first time they meet, and for others, a continuation of well-tended relationships.

"Building partnerships are by far the best thing we can do at these exercises," said Sean Grady, the director of emergency management and homeland security for Licking County. "It gives us an opportunity to work with each other."

The relationships and familiarity that the different organizations build mean that first introductions won't be happening on the site of an actual disaster.

"Bringing the local first responders and Guard units together and working through the scenarios is vitally important, not only to Ohioans but to the rest of the U.S," said Scott Walker, deputy superintendent of the Ohio Fire Academy in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, one of the exercise sites. "What we've seen today is a good relationship between the local first responders, the local EMA (Emergency Management Agency) and (National Guard) civil support teams; everyone working together for a common goal."

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