EAST FARMINGDALE, N.Y. (Oct. 30, 2014) -- Monday started like any other, in this Long Island town. But then a local business owner noticed unusual vehicle traffic around the Suffolk County Water Authority pumping station here, and called the authority.
When the water authority team showed up and opened the building door, they were overcome by fumes. Suffolk County officials called for the New York National Guard's 24th Civil Support Team to find out what hazards might be within the pumping station.
That was the scenario facing members of the New York National Guard's Brooklyn-based weapons of mass destruction civil support teams, known as CSTs, during a recent training exercise. Headquartered at Fort Hamilton, the Army's New York City military post, the 24th CST is one of two manned by members of the New York Army and Air National Guard.
National Guard CSTs are trained to identify the presence of chemical, biological, or radiological agents, and then provide advice on the hazard and how to manage it to civil authorities and first responders.
Every state and territory has at least one 22-member CST. New York is one of the few states with two. The 2nd CST is based at Stratton Air National Guard Base near Albany, responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. The 24th CST is in New York City, and has focused on missions in the New York metro area, since it was first certified in 2010.
The training scenario required CST members to negotiate a maze of pipe-filled spaces in the two story building while wearing their bulky personal protective equipment, determine whether or not the water supply was being contaminated and with what agent, and then decontaminate themselves, said New York Army National Guard Maj. Benjamin Genther, the team commander.
Clues left for the CST survey team members to find included a discarded atropine injector-used to treat nerve agent exposure-a dead suspect wearing his own personal protective gear, a plastic Pelican case bearing a Cyrillic alphabet label indicating a nerve agent was inside, and a test strip.
They collected important items and took photos and videos as well.
Being a member of a CST means being both a detective and a bit of an athlete, explained Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Saul Rodriguez.
CST members are trained to recognize indicators and clues that provide a tip-off to the type of contaminant or agent that may be present, Rodriguez said.
"We take a lot of training classes that teach us how to recognize certain procedures and certain processes," he explained.
The job is an athletic one because it takes a lot of stamina to carry a re-breather while wearing a hooded Level A orange protective suit, Rodriguez added. The suit can get very hot, depending on the weather.
The re-breather, which resembles equipment worn by scuba divers, provides up to four hours of air supply by scrubbing the carbon dioxide out of the wearer's breath and recycling the air.
Moving in the suits is sluggish, and takes practice, Rodriguez said.
There's a special challenge in picking up evidence found at the scene, said Army National Guard Sgt. Kevin Molligan, Rodriguez's partner during the Oct. 27 exercise.
CST members wear four layers of gloves when fully suited up. Learning to handle equipment or other items takes a lot of "time and training," Molligan explained.
The Oct. 27 exercise was a good one, because of the experience it gave him in learning to maneuver through a basement-like setting. It was a good opportunity to learn to use equipment more proficiently, he said.
While Molligan and Rodriguez were doing the work inside the contaminated facility, the rest of their team also benefited from the training exercise, Genther said. They had to help Molligan and Rodriguez suit up and decontaminate, as well as process a sample of the agent using the mobile analytical laboratory system, he said.
The team's analytical laboratory system can analyze unknown chemical and biological agents. It enables his team to provide local officials and responders with advice on how to best protect the public and those exposed, Genthner said.
Molligan has served with the 24th CST for four months. He originally was assigned to New York's 2nd CST, before transferring to the New York City unit.
He applied to join the CST because he had served on a Marine Corps CBRN (chemical biological radiological nuclear) response team, and decided he liked the work, Molligan explained. When he left the Marines, he joined the National Guard and applied for a CST position.
Rodriguez, who has served on the 24th CST for two years, was a CBRN non-commissioned officer for New York's 642nd Aviation Support Battalion. He liked the work and applied for a CST job when a position opened.
As a single guy, it's easy for him to handle the long hours and travel assignment to a CST entails, Rodriguez said.
When they're not training, CST members are doing real-world missions: standing by at major events like the opening of the United Nations General Assembly or the U.S. Open tennis match. The 24th conducted 100 missions in 2014, Genthner said.
"It is very busy. It demands a lot of you," Rodriguez said.