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Search and recovery: 21st SW Airmen train to handle real-world disasters

Search and recovery, FSS

Airmen assigned to the 21st Force Support Squadron bag and tag items found during a search and recovery exercise at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., April 24, 2018. Every item found was individually documented, marked, bagged and tagged. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

Search and recovery, FSS

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Tech. Sgt. Rosey Summerville, 21st Force Support Squadron search and recovery noncommissioned officer in charge, explains to Airmen the current training situation and the proper protocol for the simulated search and recovery exercise at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., April 24, 2018. The scenario involved a simulated search and recovery operation after an incident involving a bus full of military personnel entering the north gate was blown up. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

Search and recovery, FSS

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Airmen assigned to the 21st Force Support Squadron scour the ground for simulated human remains and personal effects during a search and recovery exercise at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., April 24, 2018. After each step forward, Airmen would spend time searching the immediate area for any simulated remains and personal items that may help identify the victims of the incident. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

Search and recovery, FSS

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Cameron Hunt, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photographer, documents items found during a search and recovery exercise at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., April 24, 2018. Photographs of each found item are documented and help investigators recreate the incident scene. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — -- The 21st Force Support Squadron partnered with the 21st Civil Engineer Squadron, the 21st Disaster and Mental Health team and the 21st Public Affairs office for a search and recovery exercise at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, April 24, 2018.

As part of the National Incident Management System, a search and recovery operation comes after all response actions have been completed, said Walt Heathcoat, 21st Force Support Squadron readiness and mortuary plans chief.

“For this particular scenario, we had a bus full of military personnel entering the north gate when the bus was approached by a vehicle-borne, improvised explosive device which then detonated next to the bus,” said Heathcoat. “There were several simulated victims of the incident and the rescue portion recovered all of the living and larger remains, such as whole simulated bodies. The search and recovery team out here is now recovering the scattered simulated remains and personal effects from the blast area.”

The training exercise consisted of a specialized team of 21 FSS Airmen from Peterson AFB. Aligned in a row and outfitted with personal protective equipment under an ominous cloudy morning sky; the team searched the training area for simulated remains and personal belongings while battling the cold high winds. Working as a team, they each began by taking single steps forward and performing thorough spot checks on their immediate surroundings.

Heathcoat said the training was modeled after real-world scenarios, incorporating the harsh realities of real-world disasters, to include identifying and handling simulated remains. The search halted anytime an item or body part was found. Each simulated remain was bagged, tagged, photographed and recorded before the search could restart again.

Heathcoat said the importance of the search and recovery operation provides more than documenting and recording the incident to prevent a future happening.

“With any transportation accident, recovery is a large part of the entire incident management process,” Heathcoat said. “When we are unable to recover all the victims or their remains, they are then listed as missing. We owe it to the families to recover everything so their loved ones can be identified and they may find closure and understanding.”
The seriousness and magnitude of the training was not overshadowed by any added stress the cold and proper protective equipment created.

“Outside of the weather, the training has been going very well,” said Heathcoat. “This is the first time in many years we have done search and recovery operation to this scale. If ever a situation arises and we get the call, the FSS leadership team and I know we have a great group of specialized Airmen ready to search, and ready to recover.”

Peterson SFB Schriever SFBCheyenne Mountain SFSThule AB New Boston SFS Kaena Point SFS Maui