NEWS | Aug. 24, 2021

34th CST trains at FIG on chemical, biological hazards

By Mike Vrabel | Virginia National Guard Public Affairs Office

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team conducted training including two full-scale exercises in preparation for an upcoming Training Proficiency Evaluation Jul 26-30, 2021, at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. 

The 34th CST supports first responders during potential hazardous materials incidents involving possible chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive threats and can identify unknown substances, assess current and projected consequences, advise an incident commander on response measures and assist with requests for additional state support. During the training event at Fort Indiantown Gap, the CST conducted two separate exercises, each focusing on a different fictional hazard, each while being evaluated by representatives from U.S. Army North. 

“We conducted two exercises,” said Lt. Col. Lyndsey Hodgkins, commander of the 34th CST. “One focused on chemical and one focused on biological. The ARNORTH team was extremely helpful as observers and trainers. They bolstered our established tactics, techniques and procedures and educated us on CST best practices. We look forward to implementing them in future missions in preparation for our TPE in November.”

During the biological hazard exercise, the team employed their robot to conduct the first survey of the potential threat. The robot, which is operated by remote control, maneuvers on tracked wheels and carries a variety of cameras and sensors which can help identify a threat. 

“We employed our robot to conduct our first entry for reconnaissance of the building,” explained Hodgkins. “The benefit to utilizing the robot is less time in suit for our Soldiers and Airmen, as well as the most important, for personal safety. If there are any traps set in or around the building, it is ideal that the robot detect the threat so we can request EOD to clear the threat.”

Once the robot made entry to the building where the suspected threat was housed, survey team members donned protective suits to conduct their own reconnaissance of the threat and collect samples for testing. To add another wrinkle to the exercise, the CST also had to respond to a mock “man down” situation involving one of the survey team members. 

The most challenging aspect of the training, however, was one outside of the CST’s control. 

“Our biggest challenge was the weather,” said Hodgkins. “We deployed to FIG hoping for cooler weather. On our first day the heat was intense and it was at least 10 degrees warmer in the Level A, fully encapsulated, CBRN suit. We condition for this regularly, but ensure we develop and emplace safety precautions as well. We limit the amount of time Soldiers and Airmen are allowed in suit.”

Conducting the training exercise outside of Virginia provided additional benefits to the 34th CST. 

“We regularly train across the commonwealth but deploying to a different state affords us the opportunity of travel and train in an unknown environment,” said Hodgkins. “This deployment would be similar to responding to real world missions.”

The 34th CST is divided into six sections: command, operations, communications, administration/logistics, medical/analytical and survey. Each team member completes between 500 and 900 hours of specialized training during their first year of assignment and continues advanced training throughout their tenure with multiple agencies including the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the National Fire Academy, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The team’s primary response area includes a 300-mile radius from its home station at Fort Pickett and stretches as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as South Carolina. They maintain personnel on standby at all times, can deploy an advance team within 90 minutes of notification and the main body deploys within three hours.

The unit’s assigned transportation includes a command vehicle, operations trailer, a communications vehicle called the unified command suite which provides a broad spectrum of secure communications capabilities, an analytical laboratory system vehicle containing a full suite of analysis equipment to support the complete characterization of an unknown hazard and several general purpose vehicles. The CST normally deploys using its assigned vehicles, but it can be airlifted as required.