Preparedness

Civil Support Teams 101 - Removing Misconceptions

by Gordon Hunter

On 21 March 2014, DomPrep published a report entitled “Support to Local Authorities (When They Are Overwhelmed).” The findings from that report regarding use of the National Guard Civil Support Teams (CSTs) to support local authorities were surprising and, in some ways, disheartening. To remove misconceptions, local, state, and federal response agency partners must understand the options for potential integration with their local CSTs.

Background Information

The CST concept originated from the White House concerns about potential bioterrorism in 1998. Teams were initially established, one per Federal Emergency Management Agency region, with the goal of covering major metropolitan areas. Currently, the scope has expanded to 57 teams in total, one per state and territory – with California, New York, and Florida having two teams in each due to geographical concerns.

Each team, which brings additional capability to response agencies and incident commanders, is composed of 22 full-time Air and Army Guard personnel using state-of-the-art equipment and training. This composition is important for two reasons:

  • Full-time personnel are available around the clock without needing to be mobilized like traditional National Guard forces; and
  • The National Guard Bureau (NGB) fully funds the CSTs, which makes these no-cost assets available to partner agencies.

These teams originally were chartered toentify, assess, and advise on known or suspected situations involving weapons of mass destruction. However, following the response to Hurricane Katrina and the authoring of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act, the mission set expanded to include natural and manmade disasters.

This expansion is critical, as one of the standout responses in the report indicated that CSTs are only viable for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or hazardous materials (hazmat) missions. This is an unfortunate view because the teams can be useful in a multitude of emergencies and are more than just groups of hazmat technicians. One example is the 2013 Boulder County flooding in Colorado, where CST communication assets became forward command posts allowing initiation of rescue operations into Lyons.

CSTs also have supported nontraditional missions such as the Hawaii team monitoring downwind plumes from volcanic activity and the Iowa team mounting small crafts to help locate flood-displaced tanks and materials. The teams are modular, with incident commanders able to request capabilities instead of bringing all 22 personnel, eight trucks, and three trailers to every incident. The CSTs possess a wealth of on-scene analytical capability, multiple communications platforms capable of bridging gaps in response networks and, most importantly, ready and trained personnel with extensive experience.

Teams also can assist with pre-event planning and monitoring, trans-event security (as tested during the Boston Marathon), and post-event reviews and assessments. Much of the CST mission with regard to WMD has shifted focus from response to standby missions, providing an extra layer of detection for event organizers and incident commanders.

Of course, teams also are available and maintain a keen edge of readiness for the original mission of counter-WMD. Often, teams are not engaged in traditional hazmat responses unless local assets are insufficient because hazmat missions are the purview of local, county, and state agencies, which are trained, funded, and equipped to respond to such incidents. Elected officials, however, should not deem traditional hazmat unnecessary owing to availability of the CST.

Notification Thresholds & Requests for Assistance

The CST mission is to augment and assist – rather than undermine the authority and power of – partner agencies. One other concern highlighted in the DomPrep report is the way to determine a threshold of notification. As such, it is best to phrase the threshold of notification as, “Given all your years in the fire service/law enforcement, if what you are seeing doesn’t feel right in your gut, that’s when you want to call.” Local responders know best what is and is not considered a “normal” incident for their jurisdictions and, barring agreements already made with the CST for traditional calls, should seek to employ the team when the situation goes beyond normal. Most importantly, when in doubt, call. The CST will be responsive and help determine the best force package to meet the need, ranging from telephonic consultation to full-mission profile/full team response.

Other viable concerns include: availability of the team, response time, geography covered by the CST, and the CST’s release for the mission. All of these are best addressed pre-incident by training together, at a minimum by sharing briefings about capabilities and exchanging business cards. CSTs are funded to conduct exercises every year and are more than able to set up, run, evaluate, and/or participate in exercises ranging from tabletops to full-scale exercises with partner agencies.

One respondent indicated that, since the CST was not part of routine hazmat response, the CST was not often integrated into regional exercises. In this case, it may be worth having the CST provide observer/controller personnel for an exercise to enable senior responders to train with their personnel. In addition, CSTs can provide hands-on training with new equipment when responders do not have the funding for training or upkeep. Most CSTs across the country also have authorization from their chains of command to respond when requested without formal notification – the exact parameters vary from state to state and should be addressed directly with the CST.

To establish these lines of communication, the county or state emergency managers would contact the National Guard J3 (or the director of military support). They can provide direct phone numbers to the CST for establishing a formal or informal meet-and-greet. Most, if not all, CST commanders would willingly share their phone numbers with incident commanders to streamline informal notification and requests for support. The CSTs do maintain a busy training schedule but will make every effort to support responders who are asking for help, whether for an incident, training, or simply a question on a new piece of detection gear.

Although it is understandable that there may be some misconceptions on the use of CSTs in support of local responders, especially as threats and missions evolve, it is important to learn more about this valuable resource. Ultimately, the CSTs are another tool in the toolboxes of the local, state, and federal responders and, like any other tool, familiarity makes for ease of use. Often, a simple phone call asking for a “CST 101” briefing can lead to productive partnerships that support the mission everyone shares – protecting the lives and safety of communities.

Gordon Hunter is the deputy commander of the 8th weapons of mass destruction civil support team (WMD-CST) in Colorado with more than 8 years’ experience within the CST community. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (B.S. Civil/Environmental Engineering) and Naval Postgraduate School (M.A. Homeland Security) and has served as a security forces officer and civil engineer in the Air Force and Air National Guard for 23 years. He also serves as the 8th CST explosives/energetic chemistry subject-matter expert and WMD/CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive) advisor to the state adjutant general.