Texas National Guard Team Puts Training to Good Use

By Chief Master Sgt. Gonda Moncada, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

AUSTIN, Texas, Jan. 10, 2007 – In a scene reminiscent of emergency measures seen in cities across the country after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, downtown Austin was temporarily blocked to people and traffic Jan. 8 so authorities could investigate the unexplained deaths of more than 60 birds.
Together with first responders from the Austin Police and Fire departments, hazardous materials teams, emergency medical services, FBI, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Travis County Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response, the Texas National Guard’s 6th Civil Support Team arrived at 6th and Congress avenues at 6 a.m., shortly after receiving reports of numerous dead birds downtown and people becoming ill.

The 6th CST is one of 55 teams stationed across the nation and is a rapidly deployable, full-time active-duty Army and Air National Guard unit available to respond to incidents involving possible weapons of mass destruction, as well as other disasters and catastrophes. The team represents both federal and state governments by providing support to local emergency responders and has been training for the “real thing” in many different cities throughout the country.

This week’s event was in part moderated because the 6th CST members carry with them a state-of-the-art gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer. This device provided authorities a quick and accurate summation of what was not found in and on the birds: namely a life-threatening agent or foreign substance.

The team was tasked to identify any potential hazards to the public, conduct area air monitoring, collect dead birds and assist with the analysis of any samples collected from the scene. Officials with the Austin Police Department and the USDA’s Dr. Jim Ammond were able to confirm by noon that there were no health threats to the public, and traffic was restored even before the press conference ended.

The team’s mission is to support civil authorities by identifying unknown chemical, biological or radiological substances; assess current and projected consequences; provide advice on response measures; obtain additional state and federal support; and mitigate hazards. The team’s fully equipped mobile laboratory is capable of analyzing chemicals and biological agents on–site, usually within 45 minutes to two and a half hours, depending on the agents.
Consisting of 22 soldiers and airmen, the team is trained to deploy, by ground or air within one hour of notification. Its goal is to be on scene within four hours in a 250-mile radius from the unit’s base at Camp Mabry.

“One of our biggest assets is our mobile lab and our ability to analyze samples in the ‘hot zone,’” Army Maj. Bobbie Jackson, public affairs officer for the 6th CST, said.

“Usually we receive a courtesy call from the FBI or police department alerting us that there may be a situation where our assistance is required,” she said. “The actual requirements to deploy will come from the Division of Emergency Management to our Joint Operations Center and on to our staff officer on call.”

The officer on call received the Jan. 8 call around 5 a.m. The report said that three Austin police officers exhibited respiratory distress after observing multiple dead birds in the downtown area. “That turned out to be not the case,” Jackson said. “The police officers were fine.”

From sleep to scene, it took the team one hour and 20 minutes to report to the incident commander, Jackson said. “Initially,” she said, “the Austin PD, the fire department and the CST divided the area into grids, and each department deployed technicians in protective gear to get a visual.”

Standard operating procedure for the CST is to deploy a two-man team on a “Gator,” a small rugged motorized vehicle, to outline a perimeter and set up air-monitoring equipment. Next they collect samples and report their findings to the incident commander.

In this incident, the team collected dead birds and examined them in a “glove box,” a glass, negative-pressure box with two holes accessed through large gloves. Personnel place their hands and arms inside the gloves and are able to work on samples without risking contamination to themselves or the lab.

“The dissection of the birds was performed right there on site inside the glove box,” Jackson said. A veterinarian from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a qualified forensic scientist, conducted his assessment inside the 6th CST’s rolling laboratory on site.

A bird’s heart, gizzards, lower intestines, feathers and swabs were collected. Within hours, the team was able to report that no chemicals or other hazardous material was found inside or on the birds. Split samples were also sent to Texas A&M University and a national laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for further examination. These findings will not be known for days or weeks.

While the team waited for the CST lab results, other team members assisted the police with rooftop searches. Jackson explained that it’s important to monitor air from different layers. Here again, nothing indicated that the air was hazardous to the public, she said.

(Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Gonda Moncada is assigned to the Texas National Guard.)