NEWS | July 6, 2016

In the air, on the water, underground: 9th Civil Support Team radiation drills push the limits

By Brandon Honig California National Guard

SAN DIEGO - California's vast terrain includes a 140-mile international border and 840 miles of coastline — that's nearly a thousand miles of potential illegal entry points. Keeping those points closed to the smuggling of dangerous materials is vital to the national security of the United States.

"I ask myself daily how we haven't had an attack with a bomb or chemical weapon; I like to think it's because of our vigilance that has stifled would-be attackers," said Staff Sgt. David Brian of the California National Guard's 9th Civil Support Team (Weapons of Mass Destruction). "It's extremely important that different agencies stay vigilant and work well with each other to prepare for these events, because it's only a matter of time. There's no limit to what the people who want to hurt this country will do."

Brian was speaking in April in San Diego, where he was participating in a multi-agency exercise to detect smugglers bringing radiation sources into the country via maritime routes. A month later, the Los Alamitos-based 9th CST was back in San Diego for a similar multi-agency exercise, this time detecting radiation-smugglers in underground tunnels.

"[The CST] are our experts; they're the top tier," said Brian Jensen, training lieutenant for the San Diego Harbor Police. "If there were a really bad real-world situation [involving radiation or other hazardous contaminants], we would look to them and say, ‘You're the subject matter experts, this is your bailiwick.'"

Exposing themselves to risk

The Harbor Police led the April 25-29 maritime exercise, which included three CSTs, Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, the Coast Guard and many City of San Diego elements, as well as the California Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing.

The 129th participated in a series of trials to determine if the CST could gather radiation readings off a boat while hovering overhead in an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. In one scenario, hostages were taken aboard a cruise ship, and a SWAT team preparing to breach the ship needed to know what type of environment they were about to enter.

"From where we were up in the helo, with the readings on our equipment, we were able to calculate how much energy was on the boat itself, and that correlates to how long personnel can work in that environment [safely]," said Staff Sgt. Jason Villasenor of the 9th CST. "In a [real-world] situation like this, someone from a responding agency has to be there in the presence of the potential radiation source, exposing themselves to risk. To make that mission a success, we need to make sure the people going in are comfortable relying on us to get them that information without slowing them down."

Ensuring different agencies are comfortable relying on each other was a main objective of the San Diego exercises. During the hostage scenario, for instance, two CST soldiers integrated into a SWAT team formation and provided the team a real-time assessment of the environmental dangers.

"It's always good to have opportunities to work with other agencies and get a feel for how they operate," Brian said. "We've done missions where we work side-by-side in a stack with SWAT, and others where they clear the room and then bring us in. Each unit works a bit differently, so it's vital that we rehearse and get to see how they operate and show them our capabilities and how we operate."

A step ahead

The CST continually works to improve the way it operates, including finding ways to use cutting-edge technologies to increase capabilities. During the May 24-26 tunnel exercise, for instance, the CST used a remotely operated robot to gather readings and employed a multi-laser digital mapping system to create a blueprint of an area inaccessible to GPS.

The 9th is the first of the nation's 57 CSTs to experiment with a QinetiQ Talon robot, which can climb stairs, drag 300 pounds through water and survive explosions. Most importantly, it keeps human team members out of harm's way.

"We're the guys that suit up, go downrange and do the hands-on operation to bring back samples from inside the hot zone," said Sgt. Taylor Coe, of the CST, during an exercise late last year. "Why not send a robot in, instead of having two of our guys risk their lives?"

In San Diego, the CST found creative ways to insert the Talon into different locations, including using a winch-and-pulley system to hoist it onto the Midway aircraft carrier and welding a platform to lower it into a tunnel with a 70-foot vertical drop. Once in the tunnel, the Talon's sensors successfully located multiple radiation sources that had been planted for the exercise and relayed accurate information to the CST via radio.

"The robot is a good tool," said Maj. Drew Hanson, deputy commander of the 9th CST. "The proof of concept [for using it in the CST] has been established."

Test to the limits

Unlike the Talon, which the 9th has trained with for about a year, the Enhanced Mapping and Positioning System (EMAPS) made its first appearance at a CST exercise in May. A Soldier carried EMAPS in a backpack while walking through a tunnel under a water treatment plant, enabling the 4-pound system to build a digital representation with each step.

EMAPS uses a laser scanner to measure distances to walls and other objects, and a second laser can be added to collect those data in 3D. The resulting map is highly detailed, including elements such as columns and ceiling panels. Additional sensors can map the location of radiation sources or other toxic materials.

"We can go in somewhere where nobody knows what it looks like, do a quick site survey and get a blueprint of the whole target," said Capt. Shane Foss, operations officer for the CST. "Once you bring that out [of the site], we can develop a plan based on the blueprint you developed."

The team also tested their communications vigorously, using the Mobile Field Kit and Android Tactical Awareness Kit (MFK/ATAK) to share data remotely. The 9th CST and Massachusetts' 1st CST pioneered the use of the MFK/ATAK package, researching the technology and partnering with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to bring it to reality.

"Without the MFK, a survey team member would need to gather their readings, get out of the hot zone and go through the decontamination process before we could begin analyzing the data," Hanson said. "With the MFK, sensor readings, radiation spectra and pictures can be sent to the command post in real time, allowing the science team to analyze information and provide assessments before the entry team even gets out of the hot zone."

Based on the 9th and 1st CSTs' research and successful tests of the MFK/ATAK package, it soon will become a standard part of all CSTs' equipment.

Hanson said every 9th CST exercise stretches the team's technological capabilities to evaluate their performance in disparate environments.

"We don't set ourselves up for failure, but we design each exercise to test every piece of equipment we have to the limits," he said. "We've got to know what's feasible and what's not."

Unified effort

When disaster strikes, the strength of all our responding agencies may be needed, and they'll need to work seamlessly to minimize damage. The 9th CST covers roughly half of California (with the Cal Guard's 95th CST managing the northern half), requiring coordination with agencies all over the map.

"We are here to augment and support them when they need us — not to supplant, but to support," Hanson said. "Becoming good partners with police and fire, FBI, the Department of Energy, Border Patrol, and all the other agencies, sometimes comes down to figuring out ways to get integrated with them and make sure they realize we can be a tremendous asset for them as needed. That's why we exist."

Hanson said the CST's integration with agencies in Southern California improves every year. The San Diego maritime exercise, for example, showed a "true unified effort" between the various responding agencies.

"This is an important step toward us becoming a comfortable piece in their regional operations," Hanson said. "The Harbor Police understands how quickly resources would get eaten up in a real-world scenario like this, and we are a strong partner with some great capabilities."