Guard uses creativity to train safely despite severe weather conditions
By: Matthew J. Wilson/Missouri National Guard Public Affairs
In order to check chemical properties, Sgt. Brian Harvey of the of the 7th Civil Support Team puts a drop of an unknown substance on M8 detection and pH paper during an exercise at Fort Leonard Wood.
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Jan. 11, 2010) — Severe winter weather last week handicapped many civilian government agencies and came close to cancelling a planned Branson training exercise for a Missouri National Guard unit based at Fort Leonard Wood. However, with a little creativity, the 7th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team was still able to execute its first training exercise of the new year.
Not wanting to unnecessarily risk the health of its 22 Missouri National Guard soldiers and airmen through exposure to frigid temperatures and potentially hazardous over-the-road travel, the unit utilized technology and some clever planning by its deputy commander, Maj. Jeffrey Ford, to conduct what was originally designed as a “Branson-based” exercise at its home facility on Fort Leonard Wood instead.
The original plan called for the team to respond to an incident where a pair of laboratories was discovered by civilian authorities at a storage facility in Branson. The unit’s objective was to determine what potentially hazardous materials were being used or created in the labs, and then recommend the best way to safely clean up those materials.
Ford had previously set up the labs in Branson and used still and video photography to provide visual data the team would need to complete its objective. In the past, the team had performed similar table-top exercises directed solely at its operations section — one of six sections that make up the unit — but they never had the in-depth visual information to go along with the training.
“We saw great value out of doing the operations situational training exercises — basically a functional exercise versus a full-scale exercise,” Ford said. “Instead of trying to get every section in the unit trained, you just pick a section and train it. We used to do those and the biggest complaint was that it’s not realistic.”
This time, the team was able to see the lab layouts in photos, as well as a video walkthrough of the labs and “surveillance” video of the “suspect” transporting items in a box between them. Ford added to the realism by acting like a member of the team’s reconnaissance section who was walking through the labs. While the rest of the team watched the walkthrough video, Ford used a radio to relay the information he was “seeing” to the operations section.
Capt. Theresa Wagner, operations officer, said the visual component made a huge impact on the exercise.
“The video kept a realism to the exercise and allowed us to assess hazards and run the operation as if we had an entry team downrange,” Wagner said. “It allowed us to train almost to the same level as a real field exercise.”
Compounds in liquid and powder form from the labs shown in the still photos were collected by Ford, which allowed the unit’s reconnaissance section the opportunity to suit up in their level A Hazmat suits and practice taking samples.
Sgt. 1st Class Juan Gallego, recon’s noncommissioned officer in charge, led his section’s portion of the training by placing vials of the substances found in the lab on top of their corresponding photos. This allowed members of the recon section to visualize the set ups and go through the proper steps of collecting the samples.
“This was valuable suit time and field training for the reconnaissance section, especially for our newest member,” Gallego said. “This is just Sgt. Hugh Mills’ third exercise with the team.”
Once the samples were brought back, 1st Lt. Matthew Marks and Staff Sgt. Jason Allabaugh, both of the medical section, used the team’s Analytical Laboratory System to identify the substances. The medical section used several other venues to help come up with the answers, including enlisting the help of several college professors via phone and e-mail.
“Getting in contact with the professors allowed us to rule out things we thought it might be, based on the chemistry involved in the process of the reactions,” Marks said.
Armed with all the data it had compiled, the team came together in a think tank to hammer out what the suspected hazard was — tetraethyl pyrophosphate, an insecticide that is extremely poisonous to humans.
Marks said the training was beneficial for the medical section.
“One big plus for us was that Staff Sgt. Allabaugh processed the bulk of the samples, which allowed me to go work in the think tank with operations so my background in chemistry could be utilized,” Marks said. “That also gave him more time and independent experience processing the samples.”
Overall, Ford said the exercise went well, but still has its drawbacks.
“You still run into a problem that the people in operations are basically getting an ideal situation — in other words nothing goes wrong during the entry that they have to contend with,” he said. “The batteries never run out on a piece of equipment and everything is working 100 percent.”
However, the alternatives would have been to risk health or not train at all because of the extreme wintery conditions.
“With the weather the way it is in Missouri, especially in the winter, maybe this is the best way to do it,” Ford said.