New Teams Put Military First Responders on the Scene
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo., July 31, 2000 The team members gathered around their commander for a mission brief. The situation had already resulted in tragedy. A local police officer was killed in an explosion after arresting a suspected neo-Nazi on a bad check charge. The house had been booby- trapped, and the explosion released a strange-smelling cloud that had people falling to the ground gagging, shaking and holding their throats.
Upon receiving their orders, the group wasted no time getting to work. Within an hour they had a decontamination line up and were entering the "hot zone" in self-contained breathing apparatus.
Members of a weapons of mass destruction civil support team, wearing protective equipment while training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., use a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer in a simulated "hot zone" during an exercise. The equipment can identify up to 84,000 different substances. Photo by Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
From nowhere, a TV video crew barged in on the team hard at work. Army Lt. Col. Randy Clayton seemed taken aback by the sudden invasion, but quickly reined in the newsmen.
"All their focus needs to be on making sure their equipment is working," he told them. "It could be very dangerous for them if they don't prepare properly." The commander of the South Carolina National Guard's 43rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, Clayton assured the newsmen he'd give them as much information as he could and regular updates. All the while, he expertly shielded his troops from distraction.
This was just an exercise. But a casual observer wouldn't have known it based on how hard these soldiers and airmen had been working. By September, 17 new weapons of mass destruction civil support teams will have completed the first phase of their training: the new, specially designed, three-week Emergency Assessment and Detection Course here. Teams from Iowa, New Mexico, Louisiana and South Carolina comprised the first class June 10-28.
The training here focuses on familiarization with their equipment, what's expected of teams at an incident, how to enter a suspected contaminated site, and how to use detection and sampling equipment, according to Bill Johnson, a principal analyst with the Army's Consequence Management Program Integration Office in Washington. The Army is the lead agency for homeland security within DoD.
“Most haven’t seen this equipment before,” he said, pointing to a sophisticated mass spectrometer. The device can detect up to 84,000 different substances -- in the hands of an experienced operator. The students also train to use portable multiray photoionization detectors that help identify explosive and volatile substances.
Team commanders and deputy commanders like Clayton also spend three days learning to deal with news media and to interact with local officials.
Battelle Memorial Institute, a chemical test and evaluation organization based in Columbus, Ohio, conducts the training under a contract with DoD.
The 17 teams are the second group to be formed throughout the country. In May 1998, President Bill Clinton directed DoD to form 10 teams to support state and local authorities in the event of an incident involving weapons of mass destruction. Even before the first 10 teams began training, Congress ordered the creation of 17 more in early 2000.
Every team consists of 22 volunteer full-time Army or Air National Guard experts in 14 occupational specialties. The teams are divided into six sections -- command and control, operations, reconnaissance, logistics and administration, communications, and medical. All have been given state-of-the- art equipment that can make them a tremendous asset to on-scene commanders.
The first 10 teams have completed training and are in the final stages of earning DoD certification that they're ready to react to emergencies. They're located in each of the Federal Emergency Management Agency regions: Natick, Mass.; Scotia, N.Y.; Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.; Marietta, Ga.; Peoria, Ill.; Austin, Texas; Fort Leonard Wood; Aurora, Colo.; Los Alamitos, Calif.; and Tacoma, Wash.
The bloc of 17 is scheduled to be ready for action by mid-2001. They will be based in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia. Though teams "belong to" their respective state National Guards and not every one has a team, interstate agreements will allow teams to respond across state lines.
Johnson explained that the first 10 teams went through a slightly longer training program in summer 1999. "We took lessons learned and student critiques, worked them together and told Battelle what we wanted," the analyst said. The course is shorter this year.
He said officials are "keeping lessons learned daily," and the four other classes scheduled this summer may evolve as a result. “But we feel these people will be as well trained as follow-on courses,” he said.
Fort Leonard Wood was selected for this training because it's already the home of military chemical training, Johnson said. “The chemical corps is the proponent for the civil support teams,” he said. “They provide facilities and assets to support the training.”
Weapons of mass destruction civil support teams are expected to be ready for just about anything involving nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological agents, said Army Lt. Col. William Johnson, commander of the Missouri National Guard's 7th WMD Civil Support Team. The two Johnsons are unrelated.
"Our primary mission would be to support local and state authorities," he explained. "We would fall in under them and provide whatever support they need, whether it be making an entry into a hot zone, finding out what the chemical or biological contamination is, or advising them on what their actions should be in getting everything cleaned up."
When teams deploy, they will automatically fall in under the Incident Command System, a chain of command developed by first responders to minimize confusion at an incident site.
"Any time there's an accident or a situation involving local first responders -- law enforcement, medical, fire or hazardous material personnel -- they set up a system where one person is in charge and then they set up a staff like we have," Johnson, whose team is based out of Fort Leonard Wood, said.
In addition to calling a team for an attack involving weapons of mass destruction, local officials might ask for help if they received a letter threatening the release of anthrax or there's an accident involving hazardous materials, Johnson said. The teams could also help local officials determine what other support they need and help request other federal assistance.
Even though teams aren’t yet DoD-certified to respond to emergencies, some communities are already counting them as assets in their plans. Missouri's Johnson, calling his team “operational, but not certified yet,” notes his people have provided training support to sheriff’s offices and hazardous materials teams in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
“We can provide material they don’t have, show them how to use the equipment and how to select the right equipment for them,” he said. “This keeps us sharp, because when you’re training other folks you have to be the experts. That means you have to keep your edge and stay current on what’s new and what’s up-and- coming.”
Johnson said his medical specialists are in particularly high demand to lecture hospitals on treating victims of weapons of mass destruction. “This is brand-new ground for a lot of people,” he said. “We’ve been immersing ourselves in it for the past 18 months, so why not let people pick our brains?”
The volunteer teams use commercial vehicles and predominantly civilian equipment by design, said Air Force Maj. Patrick Gaffney, Johnson's deputy. "We use the same equipment other first responders use. That's intentional so we can support them once we get on the scene, and vice versa."
The teams are ready to deploy within four hours to anywhere within their area of responsibility, Johnson said. They move out with all their own detection and decontamination equipment, medical supplies and protective gear. They're equipped with a state-of-the-art command suite that can be handle communications for an entire operation. They also carry enough food and water to last 48 to 72 hours.
Getting these teams stood up was no easy task. Johnson said his team members each spent 800 to 1,200 hours learning the standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Fire Academy and Environmental Protection Agency, as well as maintaining proficiency in their military specialties. The unit also has to train collectively. Because of all this training, team members are required to make a three-year commitment.
"A lot of these guys easily spent six to seven months away from their families, bouncing all around the United States," he said. "These folks worked six days a week for extended periods of time. I think in 1999, I only had 42 days off, including weekends and holidays."
He said the training can be grueling, recalling exercises in full protective suits in 101-degree heat. "I think the concrete was 115 degrees. These guys kept at it an hour. Some guys lost eight pounds -- imagine that, eight pounds in an hour. We had to feed those guys IVs," Johnson said. "That's the type of strenuous training we have. The heat is intense when you're outside in the summer."
And winter training is just as taxing. "Even though the wind doesn't pass through the suit, the cold comes. And it does get cold," he said. "You can only wear so much clothing underneath because of the level of manual dexterity you have to keep."
Johnson said he believes these teams are a natural extension of the role of the National Guard. "Supporting local communities and state governments has been our job ever since the Guard was put in place," he said.