Team Hears 'We've Been Waiting for You' When Public Safety's at Risk
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
NEW YORK, Apr. 10, 2002 Members of the 2nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team have spent a lot of time at Yankee Stadium, but they haven't had any chances to relax and take in a ball game.
A hazardous materials specialist with the 2nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team from Scotia, N.Y., analyzes a sample taken in Yankee Stadium. He is looking for DNA from biological agents. Hazmat teams took samples April 5 before and after the Yankees' first home game of the 2002 season. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Eighteen of the 22 team members were at the stadium April 5 to react to any chemical, biological or nuclear threat that might have turned up during the Yankees' home opener.
The team brings unique capabilities to local first responders, and they have been called at least 38 times since Sept. 11 to provide services similar to what they did April 5. They've worked with New York City emergency management agencies to ensure public safety at such events as the New York City marathon, and the American League playoff and World Series games at Yankee Stadium last year.
President Clinton chartered the first 10 Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams in 1998. The joint teams, comprised of full-time Army and Air National Guard members, are spread around the country to react to suspected nuclear, biological or chemical incidents within their assigned Federal Emergency Management Agency regions.
Today, 27 certified WMD-CST teams are spotted around the country. Five more have been authorized and are in the planning stages. The New York team responds to incidents in FEMA Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Their mission is to identify substances, assess consequences and advise the civilian first responders on appropriate measures. They also facilitate requests for additional federal and state assets if necessary. When on a mission, the team has the capability to maintain secure communications with the National Guard Bureau, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and state National Guard headquarters.
April 5 was quiet. Team members took air samples before and after the game to test for chemical and biological substances, but weren't called to react to any specific event. Not so during the World Series, the team's senior NCO said.
"Last year during the World Series we responded a lot," Army National Guard Master Sgt. Michael Hartzel said. "People were so worried about the anthrax scare that any white powder, anything suspicious in the stadium we were called to check out."
Using sophisticated equipment and a mobile analytical laboratory, team members can take solid, liquid or air samples and test them for chemical or biological substances down to parts per billion. They can also do rapid DNA sampling and chemical analysis to identify potential toxic substances.
Team members explained they don't routinely set up a decontamination site on a precautionary mission, but they could set up a decon line quickly if they needed one.
However, the team's acting commander explained, speed can hurt when you're dealing with hazardous materials. "You need to be deliberate and methodical. There's no room for error," Army National Guard Maj. Kaarlo Hietala said. "That's hard for military and first responders. We usually want to rush in and do something."
Missions like this help maintain relationships the team members have built with local civilian emergency management organizations. Hietala said he and his team became close to several members of the New York City Police Department Emergency Services Unit during a New York state fire academy hazardous materials class before the team was certified. That relationship allowed the team to be more effective in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
The 2nd was one of the first units to conduct air sampling at the World Trade Center wreckage Sept. 11. They were setting up a demonstration that morning at a veterans hospital near their home base in Scotia, N.Y., when they got a call alerting them to events in New York City.
"Within 62 minutes after the first plane hit, we were en route to New York City," Hartzel said.
Hietala wasn't with the team that morning. He and the team's supply sergeant were attending a conference in Illinois when they heard the news. Unable to fly because the airports were closed, they rented a car and drove straight to New York City. They caught up with the rest of the team at about 2 a.m. Sept. 12.
"Even knowing what the Trade Center looked like before, it was such a mess I had a hard time even figuring out where I was," Hietala said. "There was stuff everywhere. People were everywhere."
Later that morning, the team was called back to the state National Guard headquarters in Newburgh to await further instructions. They didn't wait long before those relationships forged with local first responders paid off.
"Some of the officers we'd worked with previously wanted us to go back down," Hietala said. "We went back down and assisted them with air monitoring. The big concern was, 'What are we breathing right now?'"
The sheer volume of emergency responders made space a premium at Ground Zero. But the New York Police Department Emergency Services Unit Hazardous Materials section had saved a patch for the 2nd to set up their vehicles in front of a nearby high school being used as a staging area.
"It became clear to me what we brought to the table because the first thing they said was, 'We've been waiting for you,'" Hietala said. "There was no place to park down there, yet they had all this room waiting for us."
NYPD Detective David Kayen agreed. Kayen is a hazardous materials specialist with the NYPD Emergency Services Unit. He and Hietala coordinated air sampling at Yankee Stadium April 5, and they had worked closely in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
"We were saturated. We were so overwhelmed with what we were doing," Kayen said of the days immediately following Sept. 11. Five percent of the Emergency Services Unit was lost when the towers collapsed, he said.
He, too, put a lot of stock in working with people he trusted. "When Sept. 11 happened, we'd had a working relationship with these guys that went back a year and a half," Kayen said. "It was touching base with a friend to help us out."
He explained that NYPD had more than 400 hazmat technicians, but no mobile labs at the time. "They became an indispensable resource," he said of Hietala's team.
The 2nd's communications capabilities soon proved invaluable as well. Hietala said the Federal Bureau of Investigation had lost their secure communications equipment when the towers collapsed. They quickly began using the team's Unified Command Suite, a $1.2 million mobile communications center.
Team members also later provided hazmat support to search and rescue teams in the towers' wreckage.
Hietala and Hartzel both said they believe their team is a valuable resource because of the expertise and specialization they bring.
Hartzel said his team trains and maintains their equipment on a full-time basis and noted that the team is federally funded.
Hazardous material control is in high-demand since Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks through the mail, Hietala said, but many emergency services agencies have competing priorities.
"It's hard for any agency to focus on hazmat alone," he said. "For us, it's our full-time job. I think that's what really separates us."
Kayen said that level of separation is even more keenly felt outside the metropolitan New York area. "We have amazing capabilities here in New York City, and I still think they're a tremendous asset," he said. "So what do you think the poor fire chief in some place like Ithaca thinks of them?"