Exercise tests response and communications between multiple agencies

Exercise tests response and communications between multiple agencies

Multiple agencies work together in response to simulated helicopter crash

A field at the Arizona Army National Guard’s Camp Navajo base was recently turned into the site of a simulated Blackhawk helicopter crash and wildfire. Twelve Arizona National Guard members were strewn around the helicopter with realistic-looking traumatic injuries.

The scene was part of a full-scale exercise planned, coordinated and conducted by Coconino County Emergency Management, the Ponderosa Fire Advisory Council (PFAC), and the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) to test local and regional emergency first responder operations.

The exercise took months to prepare, requiring many hours of planning and meetings. The objectives of the exercise were to unify command, test interoperability capabilities and to realistically evaluate the readiness and efficiency of multi-agency response and coordination.

Paul Hellenberg, DEMA’s North Regional Field Coordinator, was involved from the planning stage through the exercise.

“I assisted [Coconino] County Emergency Management in the planning process and the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program development,” Hellenberg said. “During the exercise, I served as one of the Incident Safety Officers focused on fire and EMS personnel performing safely at the crash site. The role of the safety officer is to be the extra eyes and ears for the firefighters to stop unsafe acts to prevent injury.” 


Over 200 personnel from more than 18 agencies participated in the exercise, including local fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies; local, state and federal response agencies; as well as volunteer organizations.

First responders were presented with a scenario that included a burning helicopter with people inside and out, and a resulting 10-acre wildfire. One of their first challenges was to determine their first steps. As people’s safety is always first in a response, firefighters quickly extinguished the aircraft fire in order to extricate the injured soldiers.

The injured were moved to a treatment area where paramedics triaged and stabilized them for transport to the trauma center in Flagstaff. Medevac helicopters were utilized to transport the critical patients. Of the 12 personnel on the aircraft, three became fatalities; the County Coroner’s Office was called in to manage the deceased. 

Only after the people were removed, did they turn their attention to the wildfire.

As in an actual event, an Incident Command Post was established near the scene, where members of the National Guard, Fire Chief, Sheriff’s Office and Security Chief coordinated their response to the fire, the rescue of crash victims and scene security. The exercise scenario is a safe environment to test their joint response plans, actions and communications.

“Just like in every exercise and real world event, communications were a challenge. We’ve got some great ideas for making some improvements that were looking forward to addressing. We also learned that we’ve still got some work to do in getting more first responder personnel comfortable with leadership positions in the Incident Command System,” said Robert Rowley, Coconino County Emergency Manager. “Everyone wants to respond to the incident and first responders are often more comfortable confronting life-threatening situations than actually leading and managing the incident. We’re looking into doing some mentorship-type training, like how new Incident Management Team members are trained via shadowing.”


Response agencies in Arizona hold multiple exercises every year, from tabletop discussions to the occasional full-scale exercise. Exercising with partners in a close to real-life setting allows teams to practice responding together in preparation for an actual event.

“This is probably the most important aspect of the exercise. I looked around the table during the hotwash on Friday and saw law enforcement, local and federal fire agencies, EMS, National Guard, and emergency management,” Rowley said. “It occurred to me that just everyone’s presence was the biggest positive to come out of the exercise. Everyone was talking to each other, making their individual concerns known, and discussing how to fix it. Isn’t that what emergency management is all about?”