JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. –
Cold and dimly-lit walls surround Airmen dressed in crinkling, sweaty plastic suits to protect against unknown hazards. Firefighters, paramedics, emergency responders, bioenvironmental engineers and police forces share the former highway tunnel year-round for numerous crisis situation exercises.
Surrounded by wilderness for two weeks in Gallagher, West Virginia, members of the 779th Aerospace Medical Squadron and 11th Civil Engineer Squadron, stationed at Joint Base Andrews, attended the annual Black Flag exercise held in the Memorial Tunnel at the Center for National Response.
The center is owned and operated by the West Virginia National Guard Bureau's Joint Interagency Training and Education Center.
Training settings include decrepit office trailers, concrete rubble blocking at the end of the tunnel a half-mile into the mountainside, two-story buildings, caves, train stations, crushed cars with mannequins as victims and chemical, biological and drug laboratory scenes with munitions stockpiles.
"In order to create the greatest sense of realism and urgency, emergency management and bioenvironmental engineer Airmen traveled here to practice their response skills together," Tech. Sgt. John Wagner, Air Force District of Washington manager of capabilities planning branch and Black Flag cadre. "The staged hazardous environments at the CNR create realistic stress for Airmen, teaching them to perform and communicate as a team in the event a real-world crisis."
This is the seventh time units from AFDW have participated in the Black Flag exercise. Black Flag offers participants an opportunity to train in situations that are as realistic as possible.
"This is the best training venue for us," said Sam Hunt, AFDW emergency management member and Black Flag cadre. "The chemical and radiation hazards here aren't available at Andrews. They're precursors to chemical warfare agents, which are hard to come by."
The cadres alter the training scenarios every year.
"We're always looking for new ways to improve hazard training," said Hunt. "We start from scratch, taking real world scenarios from the last year and applying those conditions to our training."
The Memorial Tunnel is isolated from the outside world, being at least a 30 minute drive from the nearest town in any direction, so the remote location allows the Airmen to solely focus on the environment they train in.
Every morning of the training week, the 14 Airmen drove down a winding and narrow road, sandwiched between a shallow, freezing river to the left and a jagged, steep mountainside to the right. They pass by homes scattered along the path with aged, chipped white mailboxes, four-wheelers and old cars scrapped for parts rusting in the front yards that have been sitting there for years, and shaggy dogs that blankly stare as cars pass by with a growing sense of asking themselves if they should turn back.
This is the short, one-lane path from the site where the Airmen stayed, down the road from the Memorial Tunnel up the mountain.
"This is my second time here," said Master Sgt. Carmen Zuccarelli, 11th CES instructor. "I've witnessed a more cohesive working environment develop over time. There's a lot of growth I've seen in the programs and the cadres with how they presented themselves and mentored us."
Zuccarelli, a reservist on Andrews, said he was impressed with the Airmen's growth during their time in the exercise.
Several of the Airmen were new to the training, from both the 11th CES and 779th AMDS.
"This is my first time doing this exercise," said Airman Marlene Zeledon, 11th Civil Engineer Squadron emergency management journeyman. "The protection suits aren't the easiest to work in because they quickly get hot since there is no ventilation, fogging up the mask, the gloves don't allow for much finger dexterity and you're field of vision is very narrow."
The cadres focus on simulations relies heavily on the real-world situations that can arise on an installation.
"When a chemical spill happens, or potentially disease-laced letter comes into the base, we are the ones who respond," said Wagner. "Luckily, that doesn't happen very often, but we will always be prepared."