KEYSTONE, S.D. -- As part of a U.S. Army North (Fifth Army) exercise a small team of South Dakota National Guard service members assisted local emergency responders in investigating a simulated chemical and radiological incident Feb. 11 at America's Shrine of Democracy.
The 22-person team of South Dakota Army and Air National Guard Soldiers and Airmen with the 82nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team were at their unit's headquarters when they got a call from the Rapid City Hazmat team asking for assistance in identifying a potential radiological threat found at Mount Rushmore National Park.
The scenario was part of a training event the members of Charlie Division, Civil Support Training Activity, U.S. Army North, designed for the CST as part of the unit's pre-certification training. In April the CST will be evaluated and certified by the CSTA through a technical proficiency exercise, required every 18 months.
"This week you are our customers," said Jeff Taylor, a division chief with CSTA. "Next time we get together the National Guard Bureau and your governor will be. This is the time to ask us questions."
Before the exercise started, Taylor gave the CST members one final piece of advice. "Don't focus on the shiny penny; look at everything in the area."
While the training was specifically for the 82nd to prepare for their certification, CSTA invited local first responders in the training because in a real-life situation the CST would be part of a multi-agency response force.
"To get the number of participants we have together from all the various agencies gives them an opportunity to work out exactly how they'd respond in a real situation," said Taylor.
The scenario the CST, along with the Keystone Fire Department and the Rapid City Hazmat team, responded to involved a tour group at Mount Rushmore who left a backpack at the viewing area. The backpack then began dispersing radioactive material. As the tour group hurried to leave a second device spayed the area with a chemical compound. After evacuating the area, rangers from the U.S. Park Service called local the Keystone Fire Department.
"We arrived and called for a hazmat team because this is beyond our capabilities and resources we have here in Keystone," said Lt. Mark Enright, Keystone Fire Dept. Once the Rapid City Hazmat team arrived they called the 82nd CST to get additional specialized support.
The members of the 82nd also found the multi-agency training beneficial.
"This is a full-time job, we're on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Dale Gadbois, the deputy commander of the 82nd CST. "It's imperative we know how to work together as a team, and work with local first responders." Gadbois has been with the team since its inception in 1999.
One of the things that made this type of scenario more difficult than one that takes place in a building or an enclosed area is there is no way to completely know how many people may have been affected by the incident, or even how many people were in the area at the time.
"While this type of incident hasn't happened before, it could happen, so it's important to be prepared for it," said Scott Davis, a park ranger at Mt. Rushmore. "We have tour groups and families coming into the park every day." During February the park gets around 1,000 visitors a day.
While the park would have been shut down in the event of a real incident, the park remained open during the training. Several of the visitors had an opportunity to watch some of the training.
"I find it fascinating," said Dawn West, a park visitor from Willow Creek, Calif. "It wouldn't occur to me that anyone would attack us here, but the mountain is a symbol of our nation, so unfortunately it makes sense."
West's husband Paul added that while it was unfortunate that this type of scenario had to be rehearsed, it was good that it was.
"Hopefully this type of scenario will stay just that, but I see how easy it would be for someone to carry out this type of attack."
South Dakota's WMD-CST is one of 57 such specialized Guard teams around the nation that provide support of civil authorities in the event of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents by deploying rapidly to assist local first responders in determining the precise nature of an incident, provide expert medical and technical advice, and help pave the way for the identification and arrival of follow-on military support.