FORT WALTON BEACH, Florida — The Florida National Guard's 44th Civil Support Team geared up responding to a training scenario where an unknown chemical and/or biological threat was detected. They linked up with Mississippi's 47th CST to gather additional details and complete a battle handoff before setting to the task of identifying and mitigating that threat before it could affect any civilians in the area.
This scenario was part of a week-long multi-CST training event to test interoperability and cooperation between Florida's 44th CST, Mississippi's 47th CST, and the 4th CST out of Atlanta. Because CSTs can only sustain continuous operations for 72 hours following a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive (CBRNE) incident. They rely on sister CSTs to come in and take control of the scene. For the training exercise, each CST was given a set of problems to solve. Once they reach the benchmark, they conducted a thorough battle handoff with the next CST, a key element of their evaluation since the information teams pass to each other is essential for success.
"What we are testing is whether or not we can truly integrate and relieve in-place operations," said U.S. Army Maj. Shawn Wilson, Deputy Commander. "Once we've trained together … they know what to expect, we know what to expect from them…should some major threat, chemical or biological occur, we all know what we're bringing to the fight and what to expect from each other."
It is the CST's job to be the first on the scene, and often they are called in before a significant event to sweep the area and clear it of any CBRNE threat. Reconnaissance and survey teams first go into unknown environments in an encapsulated suit. Their monitoring equipment keeps track of hazardous material levels while obtaining samples and taking them to the mobile testing lab. Once identified, a modeler is used to work out various options for mitigation. The CST's decontamination or decon team is there to remove contamination from the recon teams. If there were civilians or other military or law enforcement personnel in the area affected by the biological or chemical agent, they would call in the CBRNE Emergency Response Force Package or CERFP to handle that decon. All of these components work in tandem to respond to a CBRNE threat.
Information Systems Analyst Sgt. 1st Class Scott Crews has served in several pivotal roles within the 44th since 2008 and says continuous training is a critical aspect of ensuring success.
"We continue to train 365. That's what we do, always developing new TTP's [tactics, techniques and procedures] to make sure that we're doing things right and better for public safety," said Crews. Crews said he also saw the event as an opportunity to train a new commo team chief to set up a wireless network, a critical component of CBRNE response.
"In doing so, that enables the whole unit to be able to have an operation picture of what is going on in real-time with all the activities we have going on at the scene," said Crews.
Crews' team wasn't the only section with new personnel. The entire decontamination team, including its NCOIC, Sgt. 1st Class Victoria Wolf, was new to the CST. This exercise helped them rehearse the process of setting up and operating the decon station.
"The setup went well and when they came out of the building, they went through [decon]; everything was set in place and it went smoothly," said Wolf.
Before taking on this new role, Wolf was a supply NCO for the Regional Training Institute. She recommends that all Soldiers that plan to go the distance in their careers look for opportunities to try something new.
"Did I think that I would ever be in a CST and be out doing HAZMAT stuff like this? Never, not in a million years," said Wolf. "Now that I'm here and I get to do this, it's very educating and rewarding."
No matter how long they've been a part of the 44th, each member has their reasons for joining the CST. As a chemistry major, Wilson was drawn to the unique mission set of the 44th and joined in June 2010. Ironically, his most memorable mission to date was not in response to a CBRNE threat but as part of a global response effort last year during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic while working on mobile testing teams at various nursing homes throughout the state.
"You see the relief on some of those patients' faces, to know that they were being tested and would soon have some relief," said Wilson. He also felt an overwhelming sense of service to the communities, aiding the other workers fighting against the pandemic. "We show up in uniform and we're not here to take over; we're here to help … We serve a community, and that community is comprised of nurses, facility managers … to know their Guard is there to help them. It's amazing."