By Staff Sgt. Raymond Drumsta, New York Army National GuardNovember 5, 2009
LOCKPORT, NY Aca,!" On Nov. 2, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Philip Pasquariello and Sgt. Tyler Fotiuo, were standing ready to aid Philadelphia authorities if the World Series game between the Yankees and Phillies was attacked by terrorists.
On Wednesday, Nov. 4, they were moving carefully in a darkened warehouse here--wearing billowy hazmat suits and rubber bootsAca,!"as part of the largest civil/military emergency exercise ever held in New York.
While other parts of Exercise Vigilant Guard, conducted in the western New York region, Nov. 1-6, are marked by the din of machinery and shouts of troops and first responders training to rescue mock earthquake victims, the action here is relatively quiet.
Here Civil Support Team (CST) troops like Pasquariello and Fotiuo, enter a darkened factory carrying buckets, flashlights and a small rolling cabinet known as a sampling toolbox. Their pace is careful and deliberate, and the only sounds are their calm voices and the rhythmic hissing of their breathing equipment as they search the building\'s shadowy recesses for hazardous materials.
Pasquariello and Fotiuo belong to the Pennsylvania National Guard's 3rd WMD Civil Support Team, one of several such units taking part in Exercise Vigilant Guard. They were on duty for three games of the World Series in Philadelphia, and arrived in Lockport to join the exercise on Wednesday, said Lt. Col. Timothy Gwinn, commander of the 3rd CST (WMD).
According to the training scenario, several citizens living in an abandoned pesticide factory went to the hospital with symptoms consistent with hazardous material exposure, Gwinn said. The unit was called out to perform their mission - the early detection and identification of chemical, biological, radiological/nuclear and explosive materials, he added.
These hazardous material classes are abbreviated "CBRNE," which Gwinn and unit member Sgt. First Class David Walck pronounce "C-Bernie." Like other CST units, they support civil authorities by finding and identifying these materials - "things that would surpass what local first responders would have in the way of detection capability," Gwinn explained.
Walck states the unit's mission just as bluntly. "We never assume control of the site," Walck said. "The CST's role is to assist, advise and assess for civil authorities."
The first thing they do after arriving on the scene of a suspected CBRNE incident is to link up with the incident commander, he added. After gathering intelligence from the incident commander, the CST troops use their detection gear to check the site's perimeter for hazardous materials, Walck explained.
Then a reconnaissance team enters the site itself while the other CST troops set up a decontamination station for soldiers and airmen entering and leaving the site, he added.
"From the time the commander accepts the mission, we have 90 minutes to get downrange," Walck said. Downrange, he explained, is the suspected contaminated area, also called the "hotzone." Based on that initial reconnaissance, unit members enter the site to gather samples until the mission is complete, or until they're relived by another unit, Walck said.
In addition to their loose-fitting hazmat suits which provide splash and vapor protection, unit members use a sampling toolbox to gather suspected hazardous materials to be tested and identified in the unit's mobile laboratory, he added.
Within the factory, Pasquariello and Fotiuo move from spot to spot, using pipettes and other tools to take samples of suspected liquid and solid hazardous materials. With their gloved hands they pluck items from toolbox's accessible trays, and they appear to use extra care when they hand the tools to each other at each spot.
Their hazmat suits are roomy enough to cover their self-contained breathing apparatuses and have transparent plastic faceplates and sleeves with built-in gloves. Though the faceplates fog up as they work, the suits' bulk and gloved sleeves allow Pasquariello and Fotiuo to pause, draw their arms back into their suits, wipe their faceplates clear and continue the mission.
Walck said the suits are so hot that he sometimes finds his sweat pooled in the bottom of his boots after a mission. In addition to supporting the Philadelphia Fire Department's hazmat team during part of the World Series, they were recently on duty for the G20 conference in Pittsburgh and public sporting events throughout the summer, Gwinn said.
Their participation in Exercise Vigilant Guard Wednesday was "another opportunity to train in a unique environment with our soldiers," he stressed. "Constant training keeps us on the edge, keeps us sharp," Gwinn said. "Being able to come to a different venue that's outside of our area just adds one additional challenge to the things we do."
Walck said he enjoys the work. "I'm a college drop-out," he said, smiling. "I never thought I'd use the chemistry and biology I learned, and now I have to use it in my job. This is the most fun I've had since leaving the Marine Corps."
The 3rd CST WMD is one of several such elements taking part in Exercise Vigilant Guard, a joint training opportunity for National Guard and emergency response organizations to build relationships with local, state, regional and federal partners against a variety of different homeland security threats including natural disasters and potential terrorist attacks.
Exercise Vigilant Guard is a national exercise sponsored by the National Guard Bureau and United States Northern Command. The Lockport site was just one area in Western New York being used for the exercise, which more than 1300 National Guard troops and hundreds of local and regional emergency response professionals are took part in. It was the largest domestic response exercise ever held in New York.