ATWATER, Calif. – A Merced County Police explosive ordnance disposal specialist walks toward a dilapidated building in his green, heavily armored blast suit. His face is hidden by an oxygen mask. An air tank is strapped to his back.
Fire trucks line up a few hundred feet away from the inconspicuous white brick building. Yellow caution tape, vibrant orange cones and a decontamination station color the bland surrounding area.
A shrill chirping noise pierces the silence. The firefighter checks his personal alert safety system device while he rests, quieting the sound that alerts others if no movement is detected.
What looked like the set of Hollywood’s next apocalyptic movie production wasn’t for entertainment, and thankfully wasn’t a real-world catastrophe. This was a training scenario that tested local, regional and federal agencies on their ability to respond as a cohesive unit to an unknown hazard.
“Civil Support Teams are your initial out-the-door teams for the California Military Department,” said U.S. Army Capt. Rory Hight, the operations officer for the Hayward-based 95th Civil Support Team.
“We are able to identify, assist, advise and assess on various scenarios, which allows the Homeland Response Force to be the follow-on force that can come and understand exactly what scenario or environment they are coming into,” Hight said.
The 95th CST is one of two California National Guard teams that provide chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear expertise to county assets or first responders. They bring a multitude of CBRN-related capabilities to enhance local emergency response team capabilities.
The scenario began with Merced County firefighters responding to a clandestine laboratory or an illegal drug lab. When chemicals and unknown substances were discovered, the 95th CST was asked to sample, identify and advise on further actions to resolve the situation.
“They bring a lot of equipment we don’t have,” said CAL FIRE Capt. Blaine Lopes, who is based in Merced County. “From communication systems, monitoring devices, and decontamination equipment, they just have more advanced stuff.”
First responders bring additional specialized training and assets, such as the Merced County Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team.
“We have similar technology, but it’s also complementary,” said Hight, highlighting the EOD specialist who conducted a site survey before the CST arrived and provided pertinent information for the progression of the exercise.
Though a bit frightening if observed by an uninformed bystander, these exercises are conducted regularly in coordination with first responders throughout the state. The continuous partnership improves communication and interoperability, said Hight.
From natural disasters to domestic terrorism, these teams and agencies prepare year-round to tackle the challenges of domestic response in high-stakes situations. Realistic exercises like this enable these mayhem specialists to be ready for any circumstance.
“By coming out and doing this in the real world with our first responders, we are able to identify issues, fix them, and expand upon them as lessons of opportunity for growth,” said Hight.