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Monett-based Guard embarks on new mission

Monday, January 18, 2010

New equipment stored at the Monett National Guard Armory has been added to back up local Guardsmen in their role as part of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP) team. Some of the soldiers based at the Monett Armory who have trained as part of the CERFP team are, from left: Sgt. Chris Turben, of Monett; Commander Sgt. Steve White, of Granby; and Staff Sgt. Matt Forrest, of Halfway. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Two weekends ago the National Guard company based at the Armory in Monett underwent training for their new mission. According to Company Commander Sergeant Steve White, the new role has given a renewed sense of value to the soldiers.

The Monett Armory is now home to the 117th Asphalt Team, an engineering contingent focusing on road construction and other horizontal projects. Space at the Armory is also shared with the new infantry company out of Anderson. The 117th has had a limited role to play in its primary mission, because its asphalt equipment will not arrive until 2011, said White.

Last year the team got an additional assignment that offered clarity to its mission. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has established groups of soldiers into Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP) teams. White said the Monett group was selected for the job because it had a team of engineers.

A CERFP force is made up of four teams of specialists: a medical team, usually drawn from Air National Guard medical personnel; decontamination; command and control, usually made up of chemical specialists; and search and extraction, preferably made up of engineers. Each team has 50 members.

With only 39 soldiers authorized for the 117th, White said another 20 were drawn from the 276th Engineering Company, the group formerly based at the Monett Armory now operating out of the Pierce City Armory.

The specific mission for a search and extraction team is to help save people from situations like collapsed buildings. Participants have to be available to leave on short notice.

"Our response time to be in the Armory and ready to roll out is six hours," White said. "Everything we have is air mobile. If we need to, we can go anywhere."

FEMA has established CERFP units in 17 states to respond within specific regions. White said the Monett unit may respond in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Iowa. The nearest other CERFP teams are in Illinois and Nebraska. The Monett group was on-call for the Republican and Democrat conventions in 2008 and for the baseball All-Star game in St. Louis last year.

All the team members had their primary training last year in Oklahoma City, Okla. Instructors on heavy search and extraction were all current or former members of the Oklahoma City Fire Department.

When the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed on April 19, 1995, the firemen had colleagues in the rubble and no training on how to get them out. Their knowledge and expertise coming out of that experience is now being shared nationally.

In addition, White said the Monett-based Guardsmen underwent National Incident Management System (NIMS) training in the use of self-contained breathing apparatus, chemical-proof suits, decontamination and how to clean up chemical spills. Instructors from Texas A&M University flew in to provide instruction on the chemical issues.

"There was a lot of heavy lifting involved," White said. "We learned how to lift a 10-ton concrete block with six pry bars. We'd crawl through tunnels and do rappelling. To me----I'm 46----I don't get to play with a lot of the skills like kids do."

Local soldiers spent one to two weeks in Oklahoma City, depending on the specific training. A week was spent on the rigorous course, another week on getting certified in hazard awareness and hazardous operations. Another week was spent on the NIMS training, much of which could be done on-line or at the Monett Armory. Nine of the local group went to Illinois for training with the Texas A&M experts. The other 41 trained at Fort Leonard Wood.

Local soldiers on the team assemble quarterly to update their skills. In April all four 50-man CERFP teams will gather at Fort Wood at the chemical training site. White said the group will also try to gather annually for training experience.

The added mission has also brought new equipment to the Monett Armory. Several trucks and trailers along with a John Deere Gator are parked in the Armory's main hall. White said another truck and trailer plus two vans are still coming. White was impressed with the major investment that has been made boosting the local Guard's resources.

"One of the men said to me, 'This is why I got into the Guard, to be able to help people.' I think we all feel that way," White added.

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