When the call comes, the 54th Civil Support Team of the Wisconsin National Guard never knows what threat it faces. It could be chemical, biological, or radioactive, said the commander of the 22-soldier unit, Lt. Col. David W. May. In simple terms, he added, “we’re the state’s hazmat team for weapons of mass destruction.”
On call 24/7, the CST must live within an hour’s drive of its Madison base, and its eight ready loaded trucks and trailers must be on the road within 90 minutes of the call to duty. Such a call awoke Col. May at 4:30 a.m. on November 14. At 5:58 a.m. the convoy of deep blue trucks and trailers was on the road to Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.
F-16s from the Wisconsin Air National Guard intercepted a suspicious DC-3 inbound from Canada, which was met by local law enforcement and the FBI. Onboard they found a pilot wearing a protective suit and, in the baggage compartment, an individual in severe medical distress. Securing the area, they called the CST to assess the situation and guide its mitigation.
This situation was, of course, staged. The unit’s monthly training evolutions maintain the team’s readiness for any eventuality, said Col. May. Equally important it forges interagency bonds and introduces local agencies, such as the Oshkosh fire and police departments and the Winnebago County Public Health Department, to CST’s mission and capabilities.
Serving the entire state, the 54th CST is available to any incident commander at no cost or later reimbursement. This was its inaugural training exercise at Wittman, said Airport Director Peter Moll, who added that Basler Turbo Conversions, without a second of hesitation, contributed a DC-3 configured for passengers to the exercise held on the airport’s west ramp.
Upon arrival at the airport, the CST established a safety perimeter, which included environmental monitors and video surveillance to its command van. The communication van established its satellite and radio links, the science lab prepared to run tests as the situation required, and the entry and decontamination teams prepared to enter the aircraft.
In the control tower conference room the regional FBI coordinator for WMD, the CST physician’s assistant, and a tech from its science lab interviewed the pilot, who improvised answers guided by a cheat sheet. Motivated by threats to his family, the pilot followed the directions issued through an anonymous e-mail. He didn’t know someone was in the baggage compartment.
Before entering the DC-3 the entire CST team briefed the evolution so every member of the team understood what would happen when, and what to do should something unexpected arise. Encased in protective suits and gas masks, with every edged sealed with special tape, the three man team advanced on the aircraft. They examined its exterior thoroughly before entering.
Inside, two members of the team examined the aircraft for threats with a five-gas “sniffer” that measured everything from oxygen concentration to the level of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and a device that measured different types of radioactivity. In the cockpit, they used a test strip to identify a liquid sheen on the deck behind the copilot’s seat. It was hydraulic fluid.
In the baggage compartment the physician’s assistant evaluated the victim, a heavy mannequin in fatigues. Posted around him were color photos of his symptoms that supported the pre-entry suspicion of a viral hemorrhagic fever, possibly Ebola. A CST observer evaluated the team’s performance and observers from the Oshkosh and Appleton fire departments made notes of the procedures.
While the entry team went through the decontamination process, the lab confirmed Ebola and communicated this to everyone on the communication network. Had this training exercise been real, said Col. May, a team from the Center for Disease Control probably would have been airborne before the team entered the airplane, and it would deal with the victim when it arrived.
The CST is an evaluation team that is self-supporting for up to 72 hours, he continued. Its members represent 22 different military specialties, and each of them is a certified hazardous materials technician, many of them with specialized training from the Army’s Chemical School and Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease. Once it identifies the threat, others, like the CDC team, take charge of its remediation.
Given the CST mission, its monthly training exercises involve chemical, biological, or radioactive threats, but where they can hold them depends largely on the cooperation of the entities responsible for the grounds, structures, and vehicles. Participating in this effort is mutually beneficial, said the airport director, and Wittman welcomes their return.