Around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 19, Milton emergency responders got a call that a helicopter had crashed at Sand Bar State Park – and were relieved to know it was just a drill.
Milton Fire and Rescue departments were called in to assist with the Vermont National Guard Civil Support Team’s (CST) exercise on hazardous materials and terrorist threats.
The CST is a group of Guard members called on to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and other threats.
Cpt. Brian Lefler, the officer-in-charge at the Guard’s Joint Operations office, coordinated the exercise with fire Cpt. Dustin Keelty, who thought it was a great chance for the two agencies to intermingle, he said.
“It’s an operation we’ve never done before, so I thought it would be beneficial for our people,” Keelty said. “It was a lot of fun. A lot of work, but a lot of fun.”
After the call came in, 16 members of Milton Fire and Rescue responded to Sand Bar, where a helicopter fuselage and random canisters were strewn across the scene.
They were then told that the scenario included possible terrorist activity and that the Guard and FBI were involved, Lefler said.
Rescue attended to “victims,” or crash dummies with a red syrup concoction resembling blood. Some of the victims were on the ice. A card told participants the extent of their injuries, Lefler said.
Keelty said Milton crews took the exercise seriously.
“I let them play it out like it was an everyday event,” he said. “Some things in training don’t happen as fast as they would in everyday life, because it’s a different mindset. In real life, adrenaline plays a big role.”
Assistant Fire Chief Chris Poirier became the incident commander and deployed the resources at will. Besides Milton crews and 23 CST members, other responders were two other members of the Army Guard, two members of the Air Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing, which supplied the crashed helicopter, and seven members of Army North, who work for the state Division of Emergency Management.
Milton’s crews stayed on scene until about 7:30 p.m., but the CST was there until 3 a.m., identifying the fake contaminant, Lefler said.
The Vermont Department of Health cooked up a substance with just enough household chemicals in it to set off sensors, he said.
“They had a green liquid that had some chemicals in it that were not hazardous to anyone who was there, not hazardous to the environment in any way,” Lefler said.
Poirier said the exercise taught Milton responders to be more cautious.
“A lot of stuff we’re doing, we’re thinking about life safety or saving lives at that point,” Poirier said. “It’s not often you look at it from a standpoint that this could be a terrorist act …where bio-chemicals could be involved.”
Both he and Keelty said it helped to work with the CST, a group they never knew existed, to share resources and to train in something new. Lefler said the event was successful because both groups had goals to work with new agencies.
“The exercise came off without a hitch,” Lefler said. “It was dark; it was cold. The wind off the lake was brutal, but those are real working conditions. Sunny days at 2 in the afternoon? No.”
Just by coincidence, Rescue had just completed training on ice and cold water rescues; the week before, they’d learned about cold weather emergencies – these lessons had been planned since May, months before the Guard contacted them.
“That’s how it happens,” Keelty said, adding, “Being able to use all the training we can at one event shows the people in our departments that training pays off – it’s something that could really happen.”