Terrorism drill unites responders

By: 
Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter

Photo by Tom Kohley - Haz Mat equipped, responders test for any chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear releases before entering the Civic Center and once inside, take samples.

Photo by Eleanor Guerrero - Billings Haz Mat (Butch Weaver in the foreground), CST, and State lab vehicles arrive at the scene of a mock terrorist attack affecting students at the Civic Center. Glenn “Butch” Weaver in the foreground.

Inset by Eleanor Guerrero - There was a (mock) explosive device found at the scene.

The 83rd Civil Support Team (CST), based in Helena, joined with Billings Haz Mat and Carbon County and City first responders in conducting a day long, joint exercise at the Red Lodge Civic Center on Jan. 17.
There was a (mock) double disaster-the possible release of an unknown substance and an explosive device found on scene.
Tom Kohley, Carbon County’s Disaster and Emergency Services (DES) Coordinator, acted as Incident Commander. Kohley said, “Overall, it went very well. It presented a lot of questions for us as local responders that we don’t encounter very often. A level of complexity we don’t often run into. Chemical exposure to part of the student body, students that may have been exposed being quarantined…”
He said considerations include first responder exposure, scene security and scene safety. “Obviously word of an event like this would get out and very quickly with social media. A lot of people would be descending on the Civic Center for their children,” said Kohley.
The students not ill would be taken to the school to be quarantined and monitored. Kohley said, “The school was probably in lockdown mode to prevent parents coming through the door.”
Kohley said, “Pretty quickly” he saw local resources overwhelmed. “We ID’d circumstances as being beyond their control as soon as it looked somewhat intense.”
In the event of a real disaster, calls would be placed to State DES and possibly Billings Haz Mat. In this scenario, the FBI would also be called. CST can mobilize in 30 minutes.
Major Jason Steichen of the 83rd Civil Support Team out of Helena said, “The big thing is to minimize risk.”
Steichen’s main focus is in interagency coordination. “There was a (theoretical) student assembly at the Civics Center. Seven of the 25 children were vomiting, not feeling well. An emotional scene. The paramedics, EMS, were called. Almost all the students had all eaten popcorn and had some juice.”
The exercise involved isolation and quarantine of exposed students and staff, medical treatment and transport of patients to Beartooth Billings Clinic, sampling and identification of the chemical agent using HAZMAT personal protection equipment, the use of a robot to search and isolate unknown devices of concern, unified incident command and coordination of local, regional and state emergency resources. “Pre-positioned” chemical antidotes exist around the State including Billings, if needed.
Steichen said, “We are here to support (only) because the incident is local. Kohley directs us on wanting a report on the scenario. ‘What do you know?’ we ask.” The whole response and approach is standardized. Tests were conducted at the Civic Center doorway before entering.
Conceived originally as WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) CST, by President Clinton in 1998, in every state, Congress expanded their purpose in 2007, to investigating accidental releases of BCRN (biological, chemical, radioactive, nuclear) substances.
The State lab van also drove down from Helena. Scientist Major Juan Stevens conducted on-scene analysis of samples taken.
Although Steichen said the Montana CST uses FBI protocol in determining whether there has been an accident, a crime, or possible terrorism, it is “not weaponized.” They do not respond to scenes of mass shootings. Any hint of terrorism, the FBI is called. “They have a ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ guy in Helena,” said Steichen.
How would CST make the call? “We look at the scene-Chlorine gas? Could be a leak if at an ice rink,” said Steichen. “Farming-may have anhydride present. Is there anything that’s a red flag-out of place-like Anthrax?” If so, they inquire if there’s “anyone in the community we need to be concerned about, someone disgruntled.”
Tom Kuntz addressed the attendees. There were talks about cybersecurity as well as physical dangers.
Kohley found it “somewhat challenging, a great opportunity to interact with CST, City police, the local sheriff, public health emergency preparedness, RL EMS and Fire.”
Steichen said, “The Fire Department did not really know what they were dealing with, so they called Billings Haz Mat. Glenn “Butch” Weaver was there from the local National Guard Billings Haz Mat.
Billings, in turn, was not sure if they had the detection equipment so they called us.”
No one knew if the situation was weaponized-i.e. by chemical, biological or nuclear means.
The first thing in the response scenario was to remove the children from the building. Seven children “were treated” at Beartooth Billings Clinic. The others were kept separate at the school and quarantined.
Teachers at the exercise felt the scene as told was quite chilling, according to Steichen.
When CST arrives, they take the tests. “Three planned it and the rest of the team was not given all the information,” said Steichen. “We do that on purpose to test our capabilities.”
He said, “We took samples of the juice and popcorn. It’s in our lab, now,” he said. “They’re looking at it.”
He noted, “We did a sweep of the Civic Center. Dressed in Haz Mat suits, the team checked for gas, explosive devices and chemicals.” They did discover a (mock) explosive device present. This implied a possible two prong attack: the second being against the first responders, said Steichen.
“It’s important to note,” said Steichen, “there are 22 on our (full time) team all with the Montana National Guard: 18 from Army and 4 from Air Force.” They are all invested in protecting Montana.
Lt. Todd Verrill was the 83rd Commander present.
Kohley said, “It’s nice to know State resources are out there around the State. But it takes time. It puts the responsibility on local responders to make tough decisions.”
Afterwards, there was a sobering awareness gained of the huge stakes at risk as expressed by Kohley, “Students in potentially compromised positions, first responder risks, trying to find the chemical agent.”

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