SAINSHAND, Mongolia -- Firefighters Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), or "turnout gear," includes several essential items. Of all the specialized pieces, the most distinct for Cheyenne Sanchez is a photo of his sister inside his fireman's helmet.
"When I suit up to go into a building that is on fire, the helmet is the last piece of equipment to go onto my head, and her picture is the last thing I see as I go into a life-threatening situation," Sanchez said, describing how essential a 'safety first' approach is heading into harm's way.
"It's that final reminder that I need to return home safely to the people that I love and who care about me."
Sanchez, a firefighter with Capital City Fire and Rescue in Juneau, Alaska, is one of many first responders and volunteers from the U.S. military and civilian sectors supporting the Gobi Wolf 2019 exercise in Sainshand, Mongolia, Sept. 9-21. He was recruited by the Alaska State hazardous materials (HAZMAT) team coordinator, Megan Kroller, to instruct firefighter and HAZMAT response training.
"At the international level, I've never done anything like this before coming here," he said, describing how the range of experience with his Mongolian counterparts differed from person to person. "We had folks with just six months all the way up to 20 years of experience, and it added to the challenges, but in many ways, it helped us move quickly through drills where 'everyone got it,' so we could focus on more specific group needs."
The two-week exercise was designed to bolster the Mongolian civil authorities and national defense response to disasters while employing vital strategic communication and integrating foreign humanitarian assistance into emergency management positions.
"I really wanted to hammer home this idea of safety and HAZMAT response," Sanchez said.
"As the week went on, I got the impression that if there was a major catastrophic event, they would send as many bodies as they can to fix the problem," he said. "We [in Alaska] don't have an unlimited amount of resources and personnel. So if one firefighter or rescuer gets injured, that is a failure of the event for us. Emphasizing personal safety is something I wanted each of them to get, so that they could go home to their families, too."
The Mongolian Armed Forces and the Mongolian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), as part of the U.S. Army Pacific's humanitarian assistance and disaster relief "Pacific Resilience" series, hosted the Gobi Wolf exercise. Mongolia has an ongoing State Partnership with Alaska. During this year's training, the Oregon National Guard played a key role supporting all groups.
Whether it was rope rescue, search and extraction, or collapsed structures, the Oregon CERFP members discovered their Mongolian partners were curious about the teaching techniques and hands-on experience that was offered.
"They had limited experience with shoring and structural collapse, but they quickly adapted to the techniques and equipment we use to build structural collapse systems," said Oregon National Guard Sgt. Joseph Duchscherer, assigned to the 1186th Military Police Company and CERFP Search and Extraction team leader.
With a team of five other Guard members, they worked through a full week of training in an abandoned facility that proved to be an ideal site for multiple scenarios. Often the location had two and three training projects underway at the same time -- from rope teams rappelling from rooftops to jackhammers noisily cutting through concrete and search and rescue dogs roving through the old factory floors.
"In many ways, this exercise was a little more 'real-world' in nature because lumber is scarce in this part of the country -- to do this work you have to make the best of what resources are available," Duchscherer said.
"It was also great to compare and contrast other best practices techniques because the NEMA rescue unit members are seasoned professionals, too."
Planning for the exercise started months in advance.
"In February of this year we started planning this exercise and had a large window of time to build it, but it wasn't until the end that we had all of the specialized experts in place to meet the program," said Lt. Col. Eric Slayter, U.S. Army Pacific Director, Northeast Asia Civil-Military Operations, and exercise director.
The Gobi Wolf 2019 exercise had 21 training classes compared to just eight last year. Slayter said this greatly expanded the need for the quality and quantity of instructors.
"Many of these aspects for Gobi Wolf 19 pinpointed technical exchange and in-depth course work, which is why we brought in groups like the Forestry Service to talk about incident command systems and other specialized areas in disaster management systems, public affairs and medical treatment."
This year's exercise included a conference on women's peace and security, highlighting the need to focus on vulnerable populations where women are primarily responsible for children and elderly family members.
The engagement is a critical part of the government of Mongolia's ability to prepare for an unforeseen crisis. These crises are not unique to Mongolia; they are prevalent throughout the Indo-Pacific.
"We do this to build lasting relationships with partner nations, not just military and government agencies, but to foster broader cooperation to effectively respond to disasters," Slayter said, emphasizing the integral role of other non-governmental organizations.
"The Alaska civilians and other first responders filled critical areas and were incredible subject-matter experts."
One of those experts was Don Werhonig, assistant fire chief of Fairbanks North Star Bureau HAZMAT Team. After serving in the Army for 10 years, he has worked with hazardous materials for 18 years.
"I loved everything about being a squad leader (in the Army) and working with my troops and supporting their specific needs," he said. "So it was easy for me to share and relate to their (NEMA) unit structure and needs."
NEMA rescue unit members were able to go in-depth on hazardous chemicals that could affect many people in the Dornogovi Province in the event of earthquakes, train derailments and sandstorms in the Gobi Desert.
"This has been one of the best real-world experiences I've ever done, and I enjoyed the interaction with our NEMA host members and their engagement in the classroom," he said.
The agency-to-agency interactions strike at the core of the exercise: comparing disaster response capabilities, yet providing a platform for NEMA to develop and manage environmental and hazardous material disaster responses in specific areas of the country.
"This has been 14 days of amazing training where we could organize and gain great knowledge with our American colleagues," Col. Nuganbayar Batmunch, deputy chief of NEMA, said through an interpreter. "During Gobi Wolf, we were able to share and build on a common desire; where we strive to meet the needs of others when disaster and recovery operations are critically needed."