“Oh, real American,” the man yelled sarcastically from the backseat of a Michigan State Police vehicle. A woman, face red with chemical burns, watched the vehicle drive away then ran and jumped onto a chain link fence. “I don’t even know that man and I’m crying for him!” Her eyes welled up with tears. “We just want food and water and you’re arresting him!” These role players, hired to act as casualties of a nuclear detonation, stood outside the gates of Webb Chemical on the busy thoroughfare of Jarman Street, demanding Michigan National Guard soldiers assist them.
“Webb Chemical likes to be involved in our community,” said Brad Hilleary, CEO of Webb Chemical. “It’s very difficult to prepare for emergencies on paper, you really need to do a live exercise to see how people may react.”
Hilleary, along with the ownership of Sun Chemical, partnered with the Michigan National Guard by providing use of their land for exercise venues in Muskegon, Mich. as part of Northern Exposure 2015.
Northern Exposure is a joint exercise integrating the Michigan Army National Guard with local civilian, emergency-response organizations statewide. The venues in Muskegon conducted multiple scenarios from June 24 to June 25, 2015, hosting a variety of National Guard units. These scenarios, ranging from urban search and recovery to decontamination procedures, provided soldiers the opportunity to train in a realistic exercise and practice interacting with their civilian counterparts.
“The purpose of this exercise is to allow the assets from both the military, local and state agencies to work together and practice some of the skills necessary in a large-scale disaster,” said Christopher Dean, chief of the Muskegon Heights Fire Department and acting incident commander of the scenario at Webb Chemical. “It’s not everyday that local agencies get to work together with their partners in the military.”
The scenario called for agencies to respond to the fallout after a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb was dropped in the Grand Rapids area, approximately 50 miles east of Muskegon. In the process of the mock explosion, Webb Chemical experienced an improper shutdown due to power loss, creating a contamination event.
1st Lt. Nathaniel Samuelson, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry regiment, Delta Company out of Big Rapids, Mich., led a team as part of the rapid response force (RRF). Samuelson said in a real disaster situation, the RRF would assist by augmenting civil authorities and providing site security.
“My soldiers benefit the most from being able to interact with their civilian counterparts,” Samuelson said.
One of the most challenging aspects of the scenario is dealing with the confusion of information because teams are given very little guidance to simulate a real disaster.
“We have to think on our feet, work together and coordinate with civilian authorities,” Samuelson said.
All participants in the event agreed that the exercise provided a unique opportunity for disaster-relief training.
Capt. Sara So was the venue manager for both Sun and Webb Chemical in Muskegon.
“I feel incredibly proud to be part of this exercise, the coordination with the nongovernmental organizations has been excellent,” So said. “The reason we become Guardsmen is because we want to contribute to the community through the Army; that’s why we choose to stay in the state and be the ones to protect our family, friends and neighbors.”
While the idea of a nuclear attack in the United States, let alone Michigan, can be a disheartening idea, Northern Exposure, as a partnered protection and recovery exercise is an integral aspect to any homeland security component.
“The world we live in is risky,” So said. “We know we have enemies out there and they’re planning these things, it’s just a matter of when it will happen.”