A real ‘hot zone’

Written by  //  June 12, 2009  //  Feature Stories

Domestic terrorism exercise tests Florida Civil Support Team

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (June 12, 2009) — Normally the term “hot zone” refers to an area tainted by biological, chemical or nuclear contaminates.

On Thursday it took on a more literal meaning for members of the Florida National Guard’s 44th Civil Support Team (CST) as they participated in a mock “domestic terrorism” exercise in Northeast Florida. While temperatures hovered in the 90s, some of the team members donned airtight protective suits and chemical masks as part of the training exercise on the concrete runway at the St. Augustine/St. Johns County Airport.

Sgt. 1st Class Todd Keith (left) helps Staff Sgt. Keith Mess (both of the 44th Civil Support Team) remove a protective chemical suit and cool down during a weapons of mass destruction exercise in St. Augustine, Fla., June 11, 2009. With temperatures at the exercise site topping 100 degrees, the Soldiers in the airtight chemical suits combatted overheating and dehydration throughout the day. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa

To remain current in their skills and retain a deployable certification within the first responder community, the Florida National Guard’s 44th CST must pass an exercise-based evaluation every 18 months. These evaluations rate the CST’s capabilities in their entire mission function from alert through redeployment phases in a scenario based “live” training event.

Under the blistering June sun, the temperatures in the protective suits can easily reach 130 degrees, according to CST team member Sgt. Greg Swan.

“You feel every bit of the heat through the suit, plus the humidity inside the suit gets very bad sometimes,” Swan said while taking a break and trying to cool down during the exercise Thursday afternoon.

Because of the heat the teams drank large amounts of water throughout the exercise and were allowed to stay in the suits no longer than 30 minutes at a time. The participants were also monitored during the day in order to prevent any heat injuries and make sure they were drinking plenty of fluids.

However, when they returned from their missions they were soaked with sweat and ready to rest.
“You prepare for the worst; hope for the best,” Swan said, noting the 44th CST trained even in the intense heat because it mirrored how they would perform in an actual emergency; if the team was called during the summer, they would have to respond despite the uncomfortable temperatures.

Monday’s domestic security exercise was evaluated by U.S. Northern Command and included the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and the St. Augustine/St. Johns County Airport Authority as participating agencies and partners.

The scenario involved a radical environmental group infiltrating the airport with the intent of stealing a plane to disperse a weapon of mass destruction over civilian targets in the St Augustine area. Airport personnel spotted the intruders and called the St John’s County Sheriff’s Office. Responding deputies intercepted the intruders, killing four and capturing two. When chemical hazards were suspected, the 44th CST was called in to identify the chemicals.

Sgt. Brian Harrington of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office explained that the realism of the scenario would pay off if an actual emergency occurs where the 44th CST will be called in to assist.

“This is definitely a good opportunity for all of us to work together in a scenario-based event and gain a lot of knowledge about working together in case we ever have to deploy (for an emergency),” Harrington said.

The Civil Support Teams were established to deploy rapidly to assist a local incident commander in determining the nature and extent of an attack or incident; provide expert technical advice on WMD response operations; and help identify and support the arrival of follow-on state and federal military response assets.