Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kansas National Guard unit trains to respond to multiple threats

Army Sgt. Joseph Duncan, 73rd Civil Support Team, Kansas National Guard, washes a camera used by a hazardous materials team to photograph the scene during an exercise March 27, 2012, at Wollman Park in Leavenworth, Kansas. (U.S. Army photo by Prudence Siebert)(Released)

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. -- The first real-life incident for the Kansas National Guard's 73rd Civil Support Team, Weapons of Mass Destruction, was in 2004 when it was called to identify and remove World War II relics -- a live grenade and a jar of mustard gas -- found in a Kansas barn.

The Kansas Civil Support Team - which is trained to handle chemical and biological threats, and also has an independent communications capability vehicle to provide assistance after a natural disaster - safely handled the incident, the result of a hazard left behind by a recently deceased World War II veteran. Since then, it has handled many more threats to the state.

Recently the CST visited Fort Leavenworth, to conduct a training exercise in preparation of an annual evaluation by U.S. Army North.

The team is a joint effort by the Kansas Army and Air National Guard, employing 22 full-time experts to respond to chemical and biological threats across the state. They are one of 57 such teams across the nation, with one in most states, two each in California and Florida, and several in U.S. territories.

Army Master Sgt. George McMahon, noncommissioned officer for the team, said that the CST works only to support local law enforcement and first responders.

As an example, when the local fire department depletes its resources handling a problem, the fire chief could contact the county emergency management officer, and he or she could request the state emergency officer to contact the team, he said. The CST is directly under the Kansas Adjutant General's Department.

"Everything we do is locked in step with our civilian partners," McMahon said. "We act in support of them."

He said the team is always ready, 24-hours a day and 365 days a year. The team has even responded to calls on holidays.

The team practiced several scenarios at Fort Leavenworth -- on March 27, the scenario was a potential chemical or biological dump at a public pool. On March 29, the scenario was a vehicle spraying an unknown chemical along Fourth Street in Leavenworth, Kan., which adjoins Fort Leavenworth.

Army Lt. Col. Dirk Christian, commander of the unit, said the team has to comply not only with state regulations, but also various federal agency and military regulations. They also have to be able to communicate with all of these parties.

"Every exercise has been a different scenario," he said. "We really train the whole set of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear threats."

The Fort Leavenworth Fire Department also provided support to the March exercise. Leavenworth Assistant Fire Chief Mike Lingenfelser said it was helpful for firefighters to work alongside the Kansas CST.

"It gives us a chance to know what our capabilities are so we can know when to contact them," he said. "It's also just good to network before there's an emergency situation."

In Leavenworth, about 20 firefighters are trained to handle hazardous materials as well, Lingenfelser said, so the city does already have some capability to handle chemical hazards. He said the event would have to be significant for the Leavenworth Fire Department to call upon the Kansas CST.

Christian said with the CST's capabilities being statewide, and especially with air capability, they can also respond in rural Kansas areas that might not even have a full-time fire department, let alone personnel trained to handle hazardous materials.

The CST has several state and federally funded tools to protect the population, in addition to software that can tell them how weather patterns and buildings can change the path of an airborne chemical or biological agent. Those tools include:
•An advance vehicle with self-contained satellite communications and radio. Christian said this vehicle could be sent in advance to help Kansas communities after a tornado or natural disaster had wiped out communications capabilities for first responders.
•A unified command vehicle with satellite communications
•An analytical lab to examine samples and provide a presumptive analysis of what a particular
chemical might be
•Medical response vehicle
•Survey trailer with monitoring equipment
•A self-contained decontamination vehicle

U.S. Army North evaluators were also present at the March exercise. A team from ARNORTH evaluates CSTs each year. The Kansas CST is preparing for an evaluation in May.

Army Maj. Jeff Koranda, an observer/controller for the exercise, said there was a long checklist of guidelines the team has to meet. He also said there were several experts, like a nuclear scientist with a chemical engineering degree, a physician's assistant, and an information technology specialist. The team members are required to complete thousands-of-hours worth of training, including specialized fields.