By Army Pfc. Brian J. Holloran
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 6, 2009 - Sirens wail as a fire truck speeds to a school in response to a reported incident. Dozens of students are sent to area hospitals. The radiation alarm on one of the firemen begins to scream. It is every parent's nightmare and every citizen's biggest fear, but for the 14th Civil Support Team of the Connecticut National Guard this is just another day on the job.
That scenario was presented to the 14th CST here May 4, the opening day of CONN-EX 09, an exercise involving CST teams from across New England, New York and New Jersey.
The Connecticut National Guard is the host of the exercise, which is being held at various sites throughout southeastern Connecticut, with headquarters at Camp Rell in Niantic, Conn.
The regional, multi-state, multi-agency exercise is conducted by U.S. Army North and is designed to test agency responses and strengthen the participants' collective ability to address complex incidents by subjecting them to simulated scenarios involving weapons of mass destruction over a protracted period of time.
It consists of a full 24-hour deployment cycle for each CST, and is tailored to the various training needs of the other participating agencies.
Participants include nine CSTs from eight states, including Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey. Other agencies involved are Connecticut's Military Department, State Police Emergency Services Unit, Department of Public Health, the departments of Environmental Protection and Emergency Management, as well as federal agencies that include the Homeland Security and Energy departments, the FBI, the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in New London, Conn., and the U.S. Coast Guard's Long Island sector. Explosive ordinance disposal teams from various states also are participating.
The exercise is designed to test and evaluate the teams on their effectiveness and preparedness, Army Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Van Damme, the 14th CST's decontamination noncommissioned officer, said.
As one simulated scenario unfolded, the fire department called the 14th CST for help after it found radiation at the school. The 14th CST is made up of 22 full-time soldiers and airmen.
"After we get the call, our main first task is to get a reconnaissance team on site as soon as possible," Army Staff Sgt. Karl Rhynhart, survey team member for the 14th CST, said. The recon team is tasked with gathering as much information as possible and determining if the area is safe or if evacuation is necessary.
"Once the recon team assesses the situation, the rest of the team arrives and starts setting up," Rhynhart said.
The CST consists of a survey team, communications vehicle, a command vehicle and a decontamination area.
"Once the team arrives on site, our first priority is to get each area operational," Van Damme said. "Once that is accomplished, the survey team gets geared up and begins a sweep of the area."
During the sweep, the survey team checked every window, door and any other opening that led outside for any signs of a contaminate leak.
"We use devices which check for radiation, the amount of oxygen in the air and other contaminants," Army Sgt. John Barton said. "We look for anything that indicates the toxin has escaped the building."
After the team sweeps the exterior, it moves indoors.
"Once inside, things slow down a little," Rhynhart said. "After we get inside, we have to find out where the contaminant is."
The team swept the inside, door-by-door, searching for the origin point, and came across what appeared to be an explosive device.
"When the device was found, we had to evacuate the building and go through decontamination," Barton said. "Now, we have to wait until explosive ordnance disposal gets here to give us the all-clear."
Once EOD arrives and clears the team to re-enter the building, they will locate the source and control it. They'll then remain on the site until another CST relieves them in the morning.
"Training like this is meant to keep us on our toes and make sure we have all of our ducks in a row, and that's exactly what this exercise has been doing all day long -- making us stay on our toes," Van Damme said. "This is what we train for; it's why we look forward to this event."
(Army Pfc. Brian J. Holloran serves with the Connecticut National Guard.)