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National Guard Holds Disaster Response Exercise In Valhalla

National Guard troops host a disaster response exercise in Valhalla on Friday afternoon.
National Guard troops host a disaster response exercise in Valhalla on Friday afternoon. Photo Credit: Paul Devlin

VALHALLA, N.Y. -- Soldiers and airmen from the New York National Guard responded to a "train derailment and chemical spill" on Friday in Valhalla.

There were no reports of injuries, fatalities, or even property damage, however, as it was all part of a training evaluation Friday afternoon at the Westchester County Fire Training Center.

"This is to be prepared for chemical, biological, radiological -- those worst case scenarios," said Army Col. Richard Goldenberg. "This is a specially trained and designed team that is meant to bridge the gap between local responders and all the assets of a federal government that can take a number of hours to get to a site."

According to Goldenberg, the unit is called the Homeland Response Force which works in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The soldiers support FEMA region II of New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The training exercise they must execute involves three elements: Search and Extraction, Decontamination and Triage.

"This allows us to look at everything holistically," said Goldenberg. "We get to see everything start to finish, soup to nuts. Can we pull it off? Can we get it set up together? Can we have the medical team linked to the decontamination team? Does the communication work for everybody? That's the real benefit of a collective training exercise." Specialist Melissa Ponce, 28, of the Bronx, is one of 600 soldiers and airmen taking part in the drills. She says it's like practicing for a big game or test in college.

"It gets very intense out here. It definitely drains you because there is a lot of physical activity," said Ponce. "Everyone knows where everything should be and how to handle different situations. We know what our goals and mission are and we just have to go out and execute it."

Goldenberg says the three different teams of the response unit come from all over the state. Search and Extraction (Kingston),  Decontamination, (Brooklyn), Medical team (Long Island, Newburgh, Schenectady and Niagara Falls). Evaluations are immediate. "That's one of the things the military does really well. In everything we do, we stop, look at it, and assess it," Goldenberg said. "We have personnel that walk our soldiers through and say, 'Is this the way you'd really do it? Maybe there's a better way.'"

Should the public feel confident in the capabilities of the military if an accident were to occur in the area?

"If something were to be happen, you'd want to know those responders had some training," he said. "And the best thing we can say, it's not going to be the first time we've interacted with Westchester County."

"By doing training exercises like this, it starts that dialogue so the capabilities of the national guard and the needs the of the Westchester County Emergency Management Office are at least known to each other."

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