NEW YORK — Flashlights shine through stacked pallets of freight, looking toward dark offices long since empty. With only some sky light here and some fluorescent light there, you are more on the lookout for the powder and liquid that covers the floors.
Shipments are stacked and waiting for transit. Where they came from and where they are going do not matter.
Three people covered with sweat inside protective suits move slowly and deliberately, walking toward things that others would run from. Radiation and chemical agents are hiding somewhere behind a closed door or in a patch of darkness, but will be found.
This is the scene that greeted 22 members of the New York National Guard's 24th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team in Brooklyn Oct. 22 during an exercise in which they were evaluated on their ability to find chemical, biological and radioactive materials and weapons.
Usually called a CST, the unit-- headquartered at Fort Hamilton, the Army's only base in New York City-- was evaluated during the exercise to be certified to carry out their primary mission of finding and mitigating the risks of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. They can identify unknown materials for police or firefighters.
The New York National Guard has two CSTs – the 24th, which covers New York City and Long Island, and the 2nd, which covers upstate New York and the northeast. Each state has at least one National Guard CST.
Evaluators from the Department of Homeland Security planted items in the cavernous, empty warehouse for the Airmen and Soldiers to find during the exercise.
"Our job is basically to assess, assist and advise the civilian incident commander," said Maj. Robert Freed, deputy commander of the 24th CST. "Whether that's law enforcement, the FBI, could be the fire department, basically our job is to bring in a high level of expertise and equipment and be able to provide some tools, techniques and procedures that civilians may not be able to."
Despite being such a small team, they are present at what they call "national security events" – everything from the U.S. Open tennis championships and Major League Baseball playoffs, to presidential visits and the U.N. General Assembly.
Team members are trained for two years. They work with civilian agencies that often do not have their own team capable of responding to weapons of mass destruction.
"Most of those teams are not full time," said Reed. "This is all we do."
Within 90 minutes of being alerted to an incident, they can be on scene at no cost to the requesting agency or first responder. The 24th CST is funded by the federal government.
To carry out this mission, the unit must be certified every 18 months through these exercises. Inside the warehouse, the Department of Homeland Security planted various materials for the team to find, identify and mitigate their risks.
"They have to be able to identify any hazards they might come across. They have to look for things that may be a crime scene," said Rick Martin, an evaluator from the U.S. Army North Civil Support Training Activity. "When they recognize those things, they have to know how to report them. If they find a substance, they have to be able to take a sample, bring it out and process it."
The team searches for explosives and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear substances. Samples can be processed in a mobile lab or sent to other labs for examination.
"They have to do this as a team," Martin emphasized. "They need all the different parts of the team to make this happen."
On the first day of the exercise, two types of cobalt and one type of cesium were planted in the warehouse, along with a simulated potassium sulfide blister agent. The second day, the team searched for a fourth substance, along with anything they missed the first day.
"They're being very deliberate," said Martin. "That's good, take your time and find what you need to find. In a real-world situation, this would take a couple days."