AUSTIN, Texas - In a scene reminiscent of emergency measures seen in cities across the country after 9/11, downtown Austin, Texas, was temporarily blocked to people and traffic so authorities could investigate the unexplained deaths of more than 60 birds Jan. 8.

Together with local, state and federal responders, the Texas National Guard's 6th Civil Support Team arrived at the corner of 6th Street and Congress Avenue at 6 a.m., shortly after reports came in of numerous dead birds downtown and people becoming ill.

The 6th CST is one of 55 teams stationed across the nation. It is a rapidly deployable, full-time active duty Army and Air National Guard unit available to respond to incidents involving possible weapons of mass destruction, as well as other emergency incidents.

Its mission is to support civil authorities by identifying unknown chemical, biological or radiological substances, assess current and projected consequences, provide advice on response measures, obtain additional state and federal support, and mitigate hazards.

The team represents both federal and state governments by providing support to local emergency responders and has been training in cities throughout the country.

Consisting of 22 Soldiers and Airmen, the team is trained to deploy by ground or air within one hour of notification. The team's goal is to be on scene in a total of four hours in a 250-mile radius from the unit's base at Camp Mabry in Austin.

The quick response Jan. 8 was the result of many hours of exercising with local, state and federal agencies in cities including Houston, San Antonio and Amarillo.

The 6th CST has a mobile laboratory capable of analyzing chemicals and biological agents on-site, usually within 45 minutes to 2.5 hours, depending on the agents. The team carries a state-of-the-art gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, which provided authorities a quick and accurate summation of what was not found in or on the birds, namely a life-threatening agent or foreign substance.

The team was tasked to identify any potential hazards to the public, conduct air monitoring, collect dead birds and assist with the analysis of any samples collected from the scene.

Austin authorities were able to confirm at noon Jan. 8 that there were no health threats to the public, and traffic was restored even before the press conference ended.

"One of our biggest assets is our mobile lab and our ability to analyze samples in the hot zone," said Maj. Bobbie Jackson, public affairs officer for the 6th CST.

"Usually we receive a courtesy call from the FBI or police department alerting us that there may be a situation where our assistance is required," Major Jackson said. "The actual requirements to deploy will come from the Division of Emergency Management to our Joint Operations Center and on to our staff officer on call."

On. Jan. 8 the officer on call received the call around 5 a.m. The report said three Austin police officers exhibited respiratory distress after observing multiple dead birds in the downtown area.

"That," she said, "turned out to be not the case. The police officers were fine."

She said that from sleep to scene, it took the team one hour and 20 minutes to report to the incident commander. "Initially," she said, "he Austin (Police Department), the fire department and the CST divided the area into grids and each department deployed technicians in protective gear to get a visual."

Standard operating procedure for the CST is to deploy a two-man team to outline a perimeter and set up air-monitoring equipment. Next they collect samples and report their findings to the incident commander.

The mobile lab comes with a "glove box" used to examine the dead birds.

"The mobile laboratory has a small pass through door allowing for samples to be placed inside the lab," Major Jackson said. "To protect the environment inside the lab, the inside door will only provide access to a glass negative-pressure glove box, containing two holes with large gloves. Personnel will place their hands and arms inside the gloves and thus be able to work on samples without the risk of contamination to themselves or the lab."

"What was so amazing," Major Jackson said, "was that the dissection of the birds was performed right there on site inside the glove box".

A qualified forensic scientist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted the dissection inside the 6th CST's rolling laboratory.

The heart, gizzards, part of the intestines, feathers and swabs were collected. Within hours, the team was able to report that no chemicals or other hazardous material was found inside or on the birds. Samples were also sent to Texas A&M University and a national laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for further examination. Their findings aren't yet known.

While the team waited for the CST lab results, other team members assisted the police with rooftop searches because, Major Jackson explained, "There is a difference in the layers in the atmosphere when you monitor the air."

Here again, nothing indicated that the air was hazardous to the public.

Page last updated Thu May 3rd, 2012 at 12:48