NEW YORK – The New York National Guard's 24th Civil Support Team is hosting 124 counterparts from 19 other states in New York City this week to support a homeland security exercise focused on figuring out how biological and chemical weapons disperse in a city.
Officially known as the Urban Threat Dispersion Project, the exercise, which began Oct. 18, is a test by the Department of Homeland Security and New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority to determine how to defend against chemical or biological attacks in a major city.
The National Guard civil support teams were recruited to help because they understand how chemical and biological agents act, said Capt. Sean Lucas, the 24th's operations officer.
Members of civil support teams (CST) detect and identify chemical, biological and radiological materials and weapons and let civilian first responders know what they are up against. The teams are equipped with state-of-the-art detection gear, protective suits and mobile labs and communications equipment.
Soldiers and Airmen from Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey are among those participating in the exercise.
"This the largest event they have ever done for this type of study," Lucas said. "They did the same thing in 2016, but it was only in Manhattan and there was probably only about 30 CST personnel."
The CST Soldiers and Airmen released nontoxic aerosols and particulates across New York City on five days over two weeks. Then they determined how far those materials traveled from the original location, where they wound up, and how long it took for those samples to get there, Lucas said.
These releases were designed to simulate biological and chemical agents. The data gathered is being used to analyze how far the materials travel and dispersion patterns to help plan a framework for a response, according to the New York City Emergency Operations website.
"Particulates can travel by many means: ventilation systems, outdoor wind, people's clothing and shoes as they travel throughout the city," explained Maj. Guy Casarella, the nuclear medical science officer for the 24th. "The subway systems also create what is called a piston effect from the inertia of a train going down the tunnel, both pushing and pulling the air as it travels."
The nontoxic particles and gas contained short strands of DNA inside a sugar molecule so they could be traced easily, Casarella explained.
"Ten grams of particulates are equal to about three packs of sugar, which is then aerosolized in key transportation locations throughout the city at given intervals throughout the day," Casarella said.
"The same process was used for gas that was released. Aerosolizers — devices that produce a vapor — were installed on tripods for some of the controlled releases. The other method used was a cylinder type of device which heats the materials to create a vapor that is then dispersed," Casarella said.
Devices to detect the gases and particulates were placed across the city.
Some were large metal plates on the ground that were swiped clean. Then those wipes were collected to be analyzed along with filter pads removed throughout the day.
"There are samplers and sample teams distributed throughout the city and the boroughs that will be visiting sample sites on prescribed schedules to measure these tracer materials throughout the day," said Trina Vian, a staff member from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory. "This will give us an idea of the dispersion from our different sites as well as the coupling between the above ground and below ground site due to the subways."
The materials released are distinct so each sample can be traced back to the release site it came from.
The Guard Soldiers and Airmen used the exercise to train on tactics, techniques and procedures and practice coordination between other CST teams and government partners.
Sgt. Elise Burby, a member of the 24th CST, said she enjoyed working with military and civilian people who are experts in their fields.
"They have all been kind enough to share their wealth of knowledge on science, emergency response planning, and life with me. I feel so fortunate to have met and worked with so many knowledgeable and talented people," she said.
Lt. Col. Dan Colomb, the commander of the 24th CST, said the exercise was a great opportunity.
"It allows team members from all over the country to come together and share ideas and best practices that inform relationships," Colomb said. "This is also true for the relationships that can be built between the CSTs and partner agencies that were represented. The best time to meet someone is not when emergency begins."