ARLINGTON, Va. - After 9/11, the Department of Defense mandated that the National Guard increase its emphasis on the kinds of threats the United States was likely to see from terrorist organizations.
With the 9/11 attacks as a blueprint, terrorists' new focus on weapons of mass destruction meant creating teams with more technology that would be able to respond to similar incidents around the country. One part of that effort to combat potential threats to our country's safety was the creation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams, or CSTs for short.
Congress authorized the first 10 teams in 1998. Due to the extensive training and operational tempo, the units are filled with Title 32, full-time Soldiers and Airmen. Today, one of these 22-man teams is in every state and the District of Columbia, plus Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and two in California, New York and Florida.
Each of the 57 teams has to be ready to go anywhere in (or around) its state at any time, to address any number of threats. One of the ways they do this is by training regularly with local, state and federal response organizations. From the FBI to local law enforcement, CSTs build relationships with first responders and civilian authorities so when they're needed, they're prepared.
"The National Guard is postured all over the nation in little communities; we're a community-based defense force," says Maj. Gen. Timothy A. Reisch, adjutant general for the South Dakota National Guard, home of the 82nd CST. "The nature of the 82nd's mission is to provide immediate response to local officials who are responding to an emergency.
"All disasters are 'local,' " Reisch says. "The 82nd responds very early on to a local emergency or disaster and advises the local officials on exactly what they're dealing with, does the analysis on the presence or absence of chemical agents, and then provides expertise on what types of response or dangers are present."
That's the CST mission in a nutshell. In a CBRN event, they figure out what is going on and then help civilian authorities understand how to fix it.
The number of threats CSTs could face is endless. As our enemies conjure new and more unpredictable ways to harm us, CSTs across the country must be ready to respond to all of them. While the primary tool of terrorists will always be fear, the weapons they use can be anything from anthrax to radiological material in what's referred to as a "dirty bomb."
CST members don't just respond to terrorist attacks. They're also called to major disasters where normally safe chemicals are present. This makes familiarity with chemical threats crucial to mission readiness.
In terms of biological hazards, most people think of contaminants such as anthrax or ricin (a poison found naturally in castor beans) as the most common threats, which they are, but CSTs located in major transportation hubs like Hawaii's 93rd CST are also aware of other dangerous biological contagions as a potential source of disaster.
According to Lt. Col. Lance Okamura, the 93rd unit commander, the Honolulu airport is especially vulnerable to potential biological breakouts because it's such an international hub. "We are prepared to provide assistance for what I would call 'nonbelligerent' (or natural) biological threats," Okamura says. "If there's a potential breakout that comes through, we are fully prepared to provide support to incident commanders."
When it comes to natural biological threats, it isn't just Hollywood that sees viruses as a potential source of disaster. Governments worldwide spend billions of dollars planning and preparing for potential outbreaks of viruses like 2009's swine flu. Contracting these viruses can be avoided just like any other communicable disease-practicing good hygiene, and, in the case of a large-scale outbreak, avoiding big gatherings of people.
As for man-made threats, the most recent major attack on U.S. soil came from the bombers at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. After that, civilian authorities increased requests to CSTs to support major events. The 93rd supports events like the Ironman Championships and the NFL Pro Bowl, providing preventive monitoring and protection.
CSTs can identify hazards, assess consequences, advise on response measures, position themselves as a preventive measure, and assist with appropriate requests for additional support. The missions can range from identifying some kind of white powder to responding to an oil spill to protecting public figures at the State of the Union address.
"We don't wait for things to happen," 1st Sgt. Norman Peleholani from Hawaii's 93rd says. "That's what the civilians ask of us-to just be there, to have a presence, to be monitoring, and then if something happens, we're already there."