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Dr. William “Bill” Minear II, deputy director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s Infrastructure Protection Program, speaks during a March 10 planning meeting of National Guard and West Virginia Emergency Management Division officials at the WVEMD headquarters in Dunbar. Photo courtesy West Virginia National Guard

To coordinate planning for a national-level, full-scale exercise to take place for the first time in West Virginia this summer, members of the West Virginia National Guard and West Virginia Emergency Management Division at the WVEMD headquarters in Dunbar on March 10.

Called Vigilant Guard, the annual exercise program is sponsored by U.S. Northern Command in conjunction with the the National Guard Bureau, with support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Vigilant Guard assembles responders from local, state, and federal levels, including military, government agencies, private sector partners and others, to work in a joint operational environment simulating a large-scale emergency or disaster.

Vigilant Guard also helps to build joint and inter-agency partnerships and response capabilities while accomplishing National Guard and State Emergency Management objectives, according to the WVNG.

West Virginia was chosen to host the multi-day event this year, which will bring participants from Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, and other states to train together through multiple scenarios and at various locations in the region and other parts of the Mountain State.

WVNG officials estimate that more than 1,000 people from local, state, and national agencies and organizations will participate in this summer’s exercise.

“Vigilant Guard exercises highlight the need for building operational relationships, identifying and enhancing shared and unique capabilities, improving whole-of-government coordination, and refining response plans between military and civilian agencies and partners against homeland security threats prior to major events occurring. The exercise program management, design, and development, conduct, evaluation, and improvement planning falls under the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program,” according to the WVNG Facebook page.

“The Emergency Management Division recognizes the importance of participating in full-scale exercises with our partners,” said EMD Director G.E. McCabe in the social media post. “These exercises allow us to execute our response, gain skill with processes and identify any gaps before a real emergency occurs.”

The Vigilant Guard scenario for 2021 will center around a stalled hurricane hovering over West Virginia, dropping massive amounts of water over a large section of the state in a very short period of time. Participants will have to address this massive rainfall and storm event which will create flash flooding, mudslides, and dam breaches and failures leading to road obstructions/closures, as well as mandatory community evacuations, sheltering needs, and citizen and animal/livestock rescues.

Response efforts will include swift water boat and aerial rescue operations, along with wildland and urban search and rescue missions.

Participants will also be faced with Hazardous Materials accident response as a part of the scenario, including mock train derailments and tanker truck wrecks, and other hazards such as gas line ruptures, explosions, and resulting fires.

Additional graded functions will include overall command and control decisions and actions, public information and hazard alert messaging, and interoperable communications capabilities, all in a joint operations environment that responders often have to work in during large-scale natural or man-made disasters.

“We couldn’t be more excited to host VG 2021 in West Virginia,” Walter “Wally” Hatfield, director of Joint Operations for the WVNG, said. “This event will bring more than a thousand military personnel, first responders, and private sector partners with a wide scope of subject matter expertise into the state and will allow us to highlight the training opportunities and nationally important capabilities we are striving to build here in West Virginia. This is a win-win for everyone involved and an event we hope will serve as a model for future interagency exercises here at home.”

Primary operations for the exercise will take place in Kanawha, Fayette, Clay, and Nicholas counties this summer. Other state and local agencies from around West Virginia will participate virtually or through asset and resource deployment to the exercise area.

“Because all emergencies start and finish at the local level, we encourage all responders within the operational areas to participate with these exercises,” McCabe said. “This is an excellent opportunity to apply emergency response skills and form strategic partnerships for the future.”

Vigilant Guard exercises are held in a different FEMA region every year. West Virginia is in FEMA Region III, which also includes Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. This is the first time West Virginia has been selected as the host site for the Vigilant Guard exercise.

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