Island response teams ‘leapfrog’ a simulated chemical attack

GUAM – Two National Guard Civil Support Teams recently showed their joint response capabilities outside the U.S. mainland during a large scale disaster response exercise.

After crossing more than 3,800 miles of ocean in a simulated emergency response, Sept. 17, 2008, at least 20 Soldiers and Airmen of the Hawaii Guard’s 93rd CST took over a complete disaster mission from the Guam Guard’s 94th CST as part of the National Guard Bureau-sponsored exercise Vigilant Guard.

Vigilant Guard also joined hundreds of other guard members from at least five states along with federal, state and local responders, Sept. 12-19, 2008, in a simulated response to a terrorist attack on Guam.

The Hawaii CST deployed on a commercial aircraft and relieved their counterparts in less than 13 hours.

A simulated chemical attack occurred early in the morning near Guam’s Tumon Bay, a popular vacation spot. Support was managed through the territory’s Joint Forces Headquarters as part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact with both islands’ governors.

Both CST commanders called it a shining example of their teams’ abilities to join in missions and maintain operations in support of civil authorities.

“Specifically, to provide seamless support to the incident commander in a rapid response,” said Lt. Col. Trey Johnson, commander of Hawaii’s 93rd CST. “It’s effective, and it focuses on the interoperability between our two islands.”

There are 55 CSTs across the nation. The scale of WMD incident needed to call out two CSTs is determined by the first response community and the governors, said Johnson. Joint forces headquarters make assessments to determine if incidents require assets, above and beyond their territories, he said.

“If that occurs the CSTs are trained and ready to support each other,” said Johnson.

The Guard’s CSTs comprise highly-trained experts in WMD. They can advise and assist local responders in events involving the suspected use of chemical, biological and radiological agents.

The response here included donning sealed, protective suits and self-contained breathing systems to enter a simulated contamination zone, then locating affected areas and taking samples.

Johnson said his busy CST responded to seven real-world events in the last 14 months and also trains regularly. “For this exercise, we conducted a relief in place for an ongoing mission, flawlessly and effectively, using checklists,” he said.

Vigilant Guard’s scenario included a simulated explosion of chlorine tanks, so their survey teams wore protective suits with temperatures in the mid-80s and the island’s humidity at 90 percent. It was a sweaty and tiring operation, they said.

CSTs initiate rest-work cycles after 72 hours of operations. Grand-scale disasters may call for outside team members or for the entire transfer of authority to another CST.

“We are working our interoperability because if a large-scale event happens, we look to our sister CSTs for support,” said Capt. Michael Rosner, operations officer.

Rosner said relieving another CST requires taking in an enormous amount of information in very little time. The Guam survey team was operating for more than 12 hours and entered the contamination site six times before they were relieved by the Hawaii team.

“Trying to absorb the information they collected and then immediately implement it … that’s a difficult task,” said Rosner.

Although each event and its response are different, the CSTs are equipped and trained to identical standards. Some equipment is tailored to their environments, but their response vehicles, communication systems, analytical tools and protective equipment are all nearly the same.

The bottom line, said Rosner, is that a CST can come in to take over missions from another CST to support an incident commander with no interruptions, while the other team resets and rests.

“We can keep it leapfrogging like that to maintain sustained support,” he said. When there are two CST teams, Rosner said, they never have to interrupt their support in a disaster.

“We have demonstrated that capability here,” said Johnson. “We will continue to establish strong relationships to counter any WMD attacks in the Pacific Rim.”

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