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The threats may change, as well as the locations, but a constant behind-the-scenes workforce after man-made and natural disasters has been a small group of Air and Army National Guardsmen.
Members of the National Guard’s civil support teams have responded to the Boston Marathon bombing, Oklahoma tornadoes, Texas fertilizer plant explosion and ricin-laced letters sent to politicians.
In each case, CST members have reacted to requests for aid from local authorities and the FBI to investigate and provide communications during a crisis.
“Oftentimes when things happen that are out of the ordinary, the first responders may be confused by what’s going on, they may need additional support,” said Lt. Col. J. Clay McGuyer, the deputy chief of the combating weapons of mass destruction division of the National Guard Bureau. “Particularly if it is a chemical incident, ... you don’t see chemical incidents on the highway every day. These teams practice for this kind of response, for this level of problem, every day.”
The Guard’s civil support teams, made up of 22 individuals in teams in every state across the country, are prepared for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive incidents. The crews have been active since 2001, but this year has seen the group’s highest operational tempo since its inception, McGuyer said.
This fiscal year, the teams have responded to 71 incidents, compared to 101 for all of last year. Including calls to stand by and limited-scale assistance, CST teams have had a total of 1,051 missions as of May 29.
“It’s been an increase by the permeation of the awareness of teams,” he said. “We’ve developed good relationships with law enforcement and the FBI.”
The teams, which mirror the makeup of the National Guard of about 20 percent Air Guard and 80 percent Army, respond within hours of an incident to assist first responders.
When a fertilizer plant exploded April 17 in West, Texas, members of the Texas National Guard’s 6th Civil Support Team monitored air quality for hazardous emissions.
The May tornadoes that struck Moore and Oklahoma City prompted responses from the state’s 63rd Civil Support Team. They worked to provide communications on the scene and searched for downed power lines and chemical threats.
Civil support teams were already on the scene for the April 15 Boston Marathon, so when the bombs went off, they were able to determine whether there were chemical threats in the explosives.
Notable missions, however, were not about explosions or disasters. Teams in Mississippi and Washington were called to investigate letters that tested positive for ricin that had been sent to politicians and to Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. The teams have mobile labs to analyze the letters and confirm the threat in the field, McGuyer said.
The Mississippi Guard’s 47th Civil Support Team searched homes in Tupelo to assist in the investigation of James Everett Dutschke, who stands accused of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama, as well as a senator and judge.
In addition to the CSTs, the Guard last August stood up teams that are on call to respond to recover, treat and decontaminate personnel in the case of a disaster.■