Working to Save Lives
By Russell Slater
Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Staying true to their motto of “Always Vigilant,” the Civil Air Patrol’s annual National Emergency Services Academy (NESA) has been preparing attendees to save lives for nearly two decades. While not all CAP members who attend may have the opportunity to put their hard earned skills to the test, some have had to put their training to work saving lives in stressful real-world scenarios.
Over the course of two week-long sessions, volunteers from across the nation gather at Camp Atterbury’s Joint Maneuver Training Center in Edinburgh, Indiana to sharpen various mission-critical skills. Through three main schools (the Mission Aircrew School, the Ground Search and Rescue School and the Incident Command System School), NESA offers members, both cadets and adults, the chance to learn from top instructors with backgrounds in emergency services.
As CAP’s largest training event, NESA attracts personnel from a multitude of agencies who share one common goal: to ensure that graduates of the academy are armed with practical knowledge of how to handle disasters large and small, both natural and man-made. According to NESA founder Lt. Col. John Desmarais, who also serves as director of operations at CAP national headquarters, anywhere from 300 to 500 participants can be expected to attend. As of press time, 476 applications (220 cadets and 256 adults) have applied.
Making Life Savers
The three main NESA schools are designed to help CAP members achieve a higher level of proficiency and competence using specific skill sets. The Ground Search and Rescue School teaches search operations using map and compass reading, assembly of 24-hour and 72-hour gear in addition to cross-country travel and sleeping outdoors in field expedient shelters. Personnel can qualify as ground team members or leaders on site, and some also choose to complete wilderness advanced first aid training that is also offered on site.
The Mission Aircrew School trains members to qualify as mission scanners, mission observers, airborne photographers and mission pilots. The school also offers students a chance to train on the GIIEP (Geospatial Information Interoperability Exploitation — Portable), a system developed by the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command to capture photos and video footage for widespread distribution. Advanced courses are also run for qualified personnel to learn about developing programs and to become instructors in the future.
Finally, the Incident Command System School strives to instill the ability to effectively integrate the efforts of various response organizations during times of need. Born amid the confusion and inefficiency during attempts to unify competing, often rival, emergency chains of command, the system ensures a single incident commander can streamline joint operations of all types of responders. Personnel are challenged to work in the many areas of the incident staff required to make missions run smoothly. For example, personnel can attend the basic or advanced mission communications courses where they will learn about setting up antennas in the field, troubleshooting radio installations, and handling message traffic; participants can expect a hands-on learning experience.
When the Rubber Meets the Road
Capt. Monica “Tommy” Whang, Illinois Wing, Lewis Composite Squadron, had an interest in aviation from an early age and her eventual membership in CAP was a natural fit. As a member since 2007, Whang attended NESA in 2008, and had the honor of being declared a Distinguished Graduate. The following year, Whang became part of the NESA staff.
“I felt with my education in counseling and teaching, I could provide assistance to the NESA program,” Whang said. “I felt that I could give back and be helpful with serving my community as a pilot and to be a mentor to young people.”
Whang went on to participate in relief efforts following the devastating Kentucky Ice Storm of 2009, which resulted in 30 deaths throughout the state as well as 750,000 homes without electricity in the dead of winter. Civil Air Patrol worked with the National Guard and other agencies to save lives in the aftermath of the declared Presidential Disaster, and Capt. Whang, along with many other local personnel, was awarded for her efforts with the Disaster Relief Ribbon with the silver “V” for supporting the event.
Capt. Whang has had to make use of her NESA training on other occasions as well. During the 2013 academy, an experimental aircraft crash landed shortly after takeoff from the nearby Columbus airport. Students of the Mission Aircrew School applied their newly acquired skills by providing crucial information and video to the National Transportation Safety Board.
“Just this year, in the beginning of March, I was on my way down to Maxwell Air Force Base to provide Air Crew Training to FEMA personnel,” Whang recalls. “On the way down there, my crew and I were caught in a record-breaking snow blizzard in the middle of Kentucky. My crew and I assisted with the evacuation of over 50 vehicles with passengers, who would have otherwise been trapped in the deep snow on the Interstate.”
Maj. Rafael Salort, Commander Group 1, Florida Wing, is another example of a dedicated individual who has had to utilize NESA training in the field. He originally joined CAP as a cadet in 1987, and was involved with emergency services early on. After long breaks in membership, Salort rejoined the organization in 2012 and attended NESA one year later.
“NESA is an outstanding program,” Salort said. “I recommend it to anyone wanting to train and participate in emergency services.”
After having completed the GSAR School Ground Team Leader Course and the ICS School Intermediate Course, Salort progressed to the ICS School Advance Course in 2014. The qualified Incident Commander has participated in several non-distress ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) searches, which have resulted in many “finds.” Salort also supported a search mission for a UH-60 helicopter near the Hurlburt Field, FL area in March 2015.
Salort, who also serves as an Air Force reservist, added, “NESA is not just about completing qualifications or earning ratings, but about receiving quality training that can be brought back to our home units to assist us in successfully accomplishing our missions.”
2Lt. Michael Sullivan, a senior member of the Prince William Composite Squadron, Virginia Wing, knows all about bringing his NESA training home in order to get the mission accomplished. After attending NESA in 2002 as a cadet training advisor, Sullivan relied on his training as a teenaged responder to a wintertime aircraft crash in Monterey, Massachusetts in 2003. A single engine Piper Cherokee Six (piloted by 39 year old Ronald Ferris and carrying his family aboard) crashed during an attempted flight from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire.
“Up until that point the CAP SAR mission had been an idea to us (my cadet peer group),” Sullivan remembers. “It was something that we trained for, but the circumstances rarely lined up like this.”
Covering a two-state area, the search for survivors included a state police helicopter, first responders and CAP personnel. “I remember it being very cold. I remember thinking that no one could survive being out there as long as they were, but somehow when we arrived, there were survivors.” After hiking through deep snow and being guided to the crash site by an active ELT signal, Sullivan and others assisted in the rescue of three young male survivors, who had spent nearly 18 hours in frigid temperatures.
Sullivan would later attend two years of NESA as a Team Leader before enlisting in the army, and deploying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. With experience as a firefighter, EMT and airplane pilot, Sullivan credits CAP and NESA with building his skills and confidence to handle any challenge. “My career as an adult has been positively influenced by the foundation that I got in CAP and particularly at NESA.”
Expect the Unexpected
Nearly 20 years of NESA training has shown the effectiveness of the academy, leaving those who graduate with a firm understanding of disaster scenario complexities, and how best to rise to meet a challenge. Due to the high professional standards of the academy, both cadets and instructors stand ready to spring into action to save the lives of others.