By 1st Lt. Joe Trovato, Wisconsin National Guard
MADISON, WI (WNG-PR) - Just hours before multiple explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, a Wisconsin National Guard team stared down their own bomb scenario in a training event at Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wis.
The parallels were palpable. The training scenario and the day's events underscored the grim reality and significance of preparing for similar situations as the 54th Civil Support Team (CST) aided civilian law enforcement and emergency agencies in eliminating a notional bomb threat.
The CST, which provides support to state agencies at large-scale sporting events and other high-profile gatherings in Wisconsin, spent April 15 responding to a suspicious piece of luggage flagged by the Transportation Security Administration at the Madison airport. It was a situation for which the CST was well-equipped.
As the exercise unfolded, the Dane County Sheriff was alerted to the suspicious piece of luggage, which prompted a response from the law enforcement agency's explosive ordnance disposal team and ultimately a call to the CST, the National Guard's full-time response force for emergencies or terrorist events involving weapons of mass destruction, toxic chemicals, or natural disasters.
Within the training exercise, the CST was dispatched to inspect the luggage for chemical, biological, or radiological components. The device, which was corralled by a Dane County Sheriff's Department's robot, tested positive for a radioactive substance. The substance was detected by CST chemical monitors attached to the robot.
"Every operation we do, we involve another agency just because we need to get out there and work with our partners," said Staff Sgt. Dustin McCormick, a team chief responsible for inspecting the device for chemical elements. "The CST is designed to be put into a situation in which we compliment the state's assets. We don't go in and take over."
The training - conducted jointly with representatives from the sheriff's department, the FBI, the Madison Fire Department, the TSA and the airport - offered a real-life application of the CST's skills and a chance to work directly with the civilian counterparts with whom they would respond to a disaster. It also allowed the opportunity for the civilian agencies to better understand the CST's capabilities and what services they can offer.
"It was a new experience working with the airport and TSA," Lt. Col. David W. May, the CST commander, said after the exercise. "We've had a relationship with TSA for a long time but actually doing an exercise is not something we do very often. So it was kind of an old partner in the bomb squad and new partners with TSA and the airport. Being here at the airport was great, because it is a real, live, significant piece of infrastructure."
May said establishing and maintaining relationships with civilian disaster response agencies is one of the most critical objectives his team faces.
"Interagency operations are a relationship business, and now that we've had this opportunity to work with the airport and TSA, they know what they're getting when they ask for us," he said. "And they know what we're capable of."
The 22-man CST, made up of both Army and Air National Guardsmen, has the capability to analyze almost any chemical substance in its mobile lab, said Capt. Brandy Malachowski, a medical operations officer who helped planned the April 15 exercise. It consists of four sections - operations, administration and logistics, communications, and medical and analytical.
The highly trained unit, which receives classes from the Department of Homeland Security, federal emergency management agencies, and traditional military schools, conducts monthly training exercises in different parts of the state using vastly different scenarios to prepare for the unthinkable.
Just moments before the first blast reverberated through Boston, the CST discussed with law enforcement the role it plays at large sporting events like Green Bay Packers football games, NASCAR races, and other large-scale, high-profile events in Wisconsin. The CST is often pre-staged at those events to help mitigate risks and assist civilian authorities.
As the exercise concluded, the explosions that tore through the crowds assembled at the finish line of the marathon killed three people and wounded more than 100 others, giving the day's scenario and the CST's mission a renewed significance, as National Guardsmen responded immediately.
"There are two CSTs that are engaged out there in the response," May said April 16 after reflecting on the previous day's events. "In fact, one of the first images that I saw was the Massachusetts CST was actually right there."
"I think it validates our training," he said of the events in Boston. "We train to these worst-case scenarios in preparation for a day like yesterday, of course, hoping that it never happens. It just drives home the importance of continuing not only to drive home the relationships but then the practice of working through these awful scenarios."
"It just goes to show how hard it is to control these large events," he added. "We support events in the state that have tens of thousands of people or more at them, and you can't clear and then secure every bit of real estate. But you can increase the surety a little bit. From a tactical standpoint, it is just daunting to be absolutely ready for everything."