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Weary, filthy and exponentially better equipped, a group of Airmen emerged from a simulated apocalypse deep in the mountains of West Virginia as the annual disaster response exercise, code named Black Flag, drew to a close on April 4.

To create the greatest sense of realism and urgency, these fire protection, emergency management and bioenvironmental engineer Airmen traveled to the National Guard Bureau’s Joint Interagency Training and Education Center for Center of National Response, to hone their disaster-response skills together.

Airmen from the 11th and 113th Civil Engineer Squadrons and the 779th Aerospace Medical Squadron, Joint Base Andrews, Md., joined forces with Airmen from the 482nd Civil Engineer Squadron at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., to round out a total-force team of active duty, reserves and air guard emergency responders.

“I’ve never seen sites like this; it’s like the real world,” said Tech. Sgt.. James Nedd, an emergency management craftsman from the 482nd Civil Engineer Squadron at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla. “We don’t get opportunities to train with other teams in an environment like this at our home station, and the experience has been incredibly beneficial.”

Layered for warmth, the teams file into the CNR’s chilly Memorial Tunnel for the third day of Black Flag to receive a scenario. The cadre announced a lab explosion and the teams hastily started to load supplies in their vehicles to prepare for a biohazardous investigation.

Throughout, the training cadre planned exercises and evaluated the teams, in the field and over video surveillance. These team leaders questioned, observed, and assisted the students, challenging their decision-making and offering guidance.

The Airmen applied their knowledge in hands-on scenarios including simulated chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear incidents or attacks.

Participants lauded the events’ realism.

“It’s awesome,” said Tech. Sgt. John “Eric” Wagner, Air Force District of Washington manager of the special mission division and cadre member. “It’s a really good, realistic venue with realistic scenarios.”

The training facilities were created to conduct hazardous environment training, explosive ordnance disposal, underground search and rescue, counterterrorism tactics and hostage rescue. They offer venues such as an egress and confined space, post-blast rubble area, wrecked vehicle scenes, a staged bunker and cave areas, as well as chemical, biological and drug laboratory scenes.

The staged hazardous environments at the CNR create realistic stress for Airmen, teaching them to perform and communicate as a team in the event a real-world crisis arises.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Kurban, 779th Aerospace Medicine Squadron bioenvironmental engineer education and training manager and cadre member, said one of the biggest challenges team members face is the expectations of their gear’s capability.

“At home stations, scenarios are often simulated with the assumption the equipment is functioning and the operator knows how to use it,” said Kurban. “Here you must learn all your equipment and your team members’ equipment in order to complete the joint mission. When you’re here using real chemicals, you better learn the limitations of your equipment.”

The 40 total-force Airmen that emerged from the tunnel learned valuable skills that they will not soon forget.

“It’s been beneficial being able to work with other teams to see what their capabilities are, what kind of equipment they have, how they use it, how they run their operations in comparison to how we do things at the fire department,” says Tech. Sgt. Zachary Silvis, 11th CES firefighter. “It’s brought us all on the same page, to have a joint understanding and find the best way to work together effectively [in order to complete the mission].”