SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – The picturesque American landmarks of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and other San Francisco Bay Area attractions are vividly outlined through the morning fog, yet stand in stark contrast to the disaster scenes California, Oregon and other National Guard members responded to during BAYEX2019, a one-week training exercise held from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1.
Working with their neighbors to the south, the Oregon National Guard's 102nd Civil Support Team (CST) integrated with the California National Guard's 95th CST, along with other regional first responders, during a series of simulated chemical attacks.
BAYEX19 was designed to simulate an attack of unknown agents at multiple sites around the scenic backdrop of the San Francisco Bay Area, a popular tourist attraction where people interact on a daily basis. These agents are often dispensed as chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear in nature when fully "weaponized" and used as a direct threat on the public. The purpose of having other teams training together was to cultivate interoperability and build on ‘best practice scenarios' while supporting other regional first responders working together.
As the director for the Bay Exercise, Maj. Nathan Serena, deputy commander of the 95th CST, based in Northern California, said that the main goal of the exercise was to incorporate as many partnerships as possible from out of state.
“With BAYEX, we wanted to bring as many teams together as possible. So we have Civil Support Teams from Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Southern California joining our team here in Northern California,” he said.
This included working side by side with local, state and federal agencies to include; the FBI, U.S. Coast Guard, San Francisco Office of Emergency Management, the California State Office of Emergency Management and several other organizations.
Civil Support Teams are instrumental in providing significant personnel and equipment to assist local and state agencies in the event they become overwhelmed by major disasters or a large-scale terrorist attack. Specifically, CST units have the technical capabilities to identify chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) materials.
The biggest challenge, said Serena, was coordinating not only the multiple agencies participating, but also synchronizing five different incident sites while implementing the training requirements spread out during the week.
Looking out over the City of San Francisco from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at Fort Baker in Sausalito, the Civil Support Teams had the flexibility to spread out over a large area, a necessity when working with radiological sources.
“Fort Baker provides an interesting training location with great scenery,” Serena said. “In the past, we have had wonderful success working with the National Park Service.”
Training with other CST units is a critical element to enhance mission capabilities. In the event of a terrorist attack on a large target or multiple areas, other CST members from other states would be needed to immediately assist. The design of the BAYEX19 training allowed teams from neighboring states to play an active role at multiple, actively used sites around the San Francisco Bay Area.
Building on a sense of teamwork, Oregon National Guard Maj. Richard Hosmer, 102nd CST deputy commander, said that working in California multiplies the scope and mission capabilities.
“In the event of a large scale disaster, all the teams coming together could sustain operations for over a week,” he said. “When we combine all the other local agency partners, we're able conduct relief and process operations until more teams can come behind us.”
National Guard CSTs consist of nearly two dozen full-time Soldiers and Airmen and are designed to sustain operations in a 72-hour time frame. Maintaining a level of readiness allows these members to respond rapidly in the required timelines. By combining teams from out of state for BAYEX19, this ability to maintain a weeklong mission in various locations was put to the test.
“This is also a requirement by the National Guard Bureau that we train with other CST's for real-world contingency actions,” Hosmer said.
Hosmer added that coming down to train in California with other CST's accomplished multiple training requirements in one exercise.
For the Oregon Guard members, one of the test scenarios was integrating into a combined team to search around the Fort Baker recreational area. When the group found an unknown chemical substance in a shuttered WWII storage bunker, they thoroughly moved from room to room to analyze the simulated contamination to ascertain the substances.
Spending nearly an hour in their chemical suits, Oregon National Guard Sergeants Jeffery Mayes and Kayla Carey conducted testing and verification of several unknown materials. In these types of situations, communication and common training techniques are critical to ensure that proper identification of any substances is documented for familiarization.
Earlier in the week, training sites for BAYEX19 were established at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station, the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum, and the legendary Alcatraz Prison. Oregon team members also took the lead during an exercise around the historic artillery bunkers at Fort Baker, isolating materials scattered along nearby hiking areas with all-encompassing views of The Golden Gate Bridge.
The addition of working with combined teams allows all members to enhance skill sets by sharing previous experiences. Newer service members can rapidly reduce their learning curve by teaming up with other CST Soldiers who have expanded proficiencies or have other experience working in different geographic areas.
The training requirements to become a CST member are extensive, said 1st Sgt. Don Giesbrecht, 101st CST, Idaho National Guard. “Being on a CST team (for new members) in just the first year takes six to eight months to become proficient.”
For other members, such as science officers, the training can take more than a year and a half to complete. To bring the full capacities of what CST members can accomplish takes training exercises like BAYEX19.
“We have a whole spectrum of technology that we can bring to bear; we can identify chemical, biological agents, along with some radiation, and in select instances explosive ordnance,” Giesbrecht said. “Most teams are certified in rope rescue and confined space operations when you total it up, we're quite a package!”
The exercise concluded with nearly 50 simulated casualties being contaminated on a ferryboat at the Richmond, California, pier. Local firefighters working with the CST members set up two decontamination processing stations to treat both victims and first responders. As they moved through the wash and ambulatory assessment stations, resources and personnel were simultaneously tested.
“The critical objective is interagency cooperation,” Serena noted, as he described the main objective of the Bay Area exercise. “Just getting that time with other teams, how we all operate differently and building a familiarization with each other is key.”
As important as the training conditions and sites are for readiness, these new relationships will help provide the foundation for working together in possible real-world situations.
“This is the most important part of this exercise,” Serena said. “We know that if there is something really big, we will be requesting out of state assets to come in and support us.”