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Civil Support Teams Help in Columbia Debris Search

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2003 – The National Guard Civil Support teams called to duty to handle the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy are uniquely suited to the purpose.

The 21-member teams are trained to handle the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The equipment and training team members receive, however, also enable them to help in this tragedy.

The space shuttle Columbia broke apart Feb. 1 while at 200,000 feet over eastern Texas. NASA officials immediately started warning people not to touch debris because of environmental dangers. Among other chemicals aboard Columbia, they said, the fuels it used to maneuver in space are toxic. In addition, they reported, pyrotechnic devices, such as explosive bolts, could explode and kill or maim anyone handling them.

The Texas National Guard's 6th Civil Support Team immediately began helping to isolate and examine debris. Teams from Arkansas and Oklahoma soon joined in as the scope of the search area grew. Officials said Columbia's debris field covered an area of 23,000 square miles in Texas and Louisiana.

The civil support teams travel with biological and chemical monitoring equipment, portable sensors, laboratories and testing apparatus. They have protective gear that allows them to approach a hazard safely and operate around it. The teams are trained to operate with local first responders -- the police and firefighters usually first to arrive on a scene.

Army Col. Pat Scully, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Guard, said the 63rd Civil Support Team, based in Oklahoma City, is operating out of Palestine, Texas. The team "is going out and making sure the debris is not contaminated and then allowing officials to collect the debris."

The team, he said, advises first responders on what chemicals are present, the dangers they pose, and the incident commander's options.

The team has four to six hours to reach a site. All equipment is designed for easy airlifting if needed. In the case of the Columbia disaster, the Oklahomans reached Palestine in five hours.

All team members serve full time. This was the Oklahomans' first real-world deployment. Scully said officials were pleased with the unit's response speed and with the job it did while on scene.

Scully said the search for debris is very organized. He said the Texans have set up a grid and are methodically combing it. All search operations are under the control of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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