Increased aircraft, military personnel in town for Vigilant Guard exercise

Vigilant Guard, an emergency response exercise, kicks off in Great Falls on Friday.

Locals will see an influx of military members and more aircraft activity in the area during the exercise, which runs through March 7.

Vigilant Guard 18 is a National Guard Bureau and U.S. Northern Command civil support exercise. The training will include soldiers and airmen of the Montana National Guard working together with local, state and federal emergency response partners to manage the simulated disaster.

“This exercise will help build relationships that will be vital in allowing us to save lives, protect infrastructure and property, as well as mitigate the effects of future emergencies that may occur in Montana,” Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Steve Hester said in a release.

The exercises are four times annually in different states. They are joint regional exercises and the region involved coincides with one of the 10 FEMA regions nationwide. Montana is in Region 8, which also includes Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. The region’s most common challenges are flooding, severe storms, tornadoes, and winter storms, according to FEMA.

Vigilant Guard was last held in Montana in 2009.

[WATCH: Video from the 2009 exercise]

The scenario for this year’s exercise is an earthquake in the west Yellowstone area that causes dam failures along the Missouri River.

The worst case scenario for Great Falls would be failure at Canyon Ferry Dam, according to Megan Syner, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls. Syner is serving as the manager of the joint information center during the exercise.

The exercise is based on scenarios and simulations, “there is no actual threat to the public,” said Capt. Ryan Finnegan of the Montana National Guard.

Cascade County and the City of Great Falls are partners in the exercise, along with Malmstrom Air Force Base, Benefis Health System, Great Falls Emergency Services, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services, Calumet Montana Refining, Civil Air Patrol, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Great Falls College MSU, U.S. Army North, Northwestern Energy and the National Weather Service, among others.

The city involvement includes activating the city-county emergency operations center, the Red Cross will be operating emergency shelters and pet shelters will be activated.

A mock chemical spill is planned as part of the exercise near the refinery.

Finnegan said about 600 military members are participating in the exercise, but the bulk of them are Malmstrom and 120th Airlift Wing airmen. Some others will be coming from Helena.

Increased air operations will be noticeable to the public, but it’s not cause for alarm. The 120th will be running medevac flights with C-130s as part of the exercise and Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters from Helena Guard units will also be part of the exercise, Finnegan said.

Locals can also play a part in the exercise as Casualty Role Players.

The Montana National Guard has a $59,000 contract with Human Domain Solutions, LLC to provide mannequins, 100 role players and other support during the exercise. The role players and mannequins will have moulage applied by the contractor to simulate injuries such as chemical burns, abrasions and cuts. This will allow first responders to get realistic training in triage, mass casualty events and medical evacuations, Finnegan told The Electric.

The role players will be paid for participation and the learn more or sign up, go here: