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When the Soldiers and Airmen of the Wisconsin National Guard’s 54th Civil Support Team arrived in Milwaukee last week, they faced an unknown hazardous materials threat in a vacant school building on the city’s northwest side.

Representatives from the FBI, the Milwaukee Police Department’s Hazardous Device Unit, or “bomb squad,” and the Milwaukee Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Team were already on-hand, as were representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and local public health officials. The bomb squad and the hazmat team had already entered the building with robots and quickly determined that a potential weapons of mass destruction threat existed inside the building, and the CST was called in to assist.

Thankfully, the scenario that took place July 16 was part of an exercise coordinated between the agencies, but the realistic threat they faced was one for which each agency must be prepared.

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With that in mind, the National Guard set up a scenario complete with notional radiation sources, a chemical lab, wires, electronic components, tools, wires and other hazards inside the former Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School on N. 20th St. in Milwaukee.

In the scenario, a school district maintenance employee making his rounds of the property heard movement on the school’s upper floors and saw a man flee the building. When police arrived, they searched the building and found suspicious and potentially hazardous materials, prompting calls to the hazmat team and the police department’s hazardous device unit, who ultimately requested additional support.

Enter the Madison, Wisconsin-based CST, which is available to incident commanders statewide 24 hours a day, seven days a week with no advance notice. The unit is the Wisconsin National Guard’s full-time response team for emergencies or terrorist events that involve weapons of mass destruction, toxic industrial chemicals or natural disasters.

When the CST arrived at the scene, they began working with the first responders on the scene and soon sent a joint entry team into the building along with hazmat team members from the Milwaukee Fire Department. The training represented a realistic response scenario, which could prove invaluable in the event of a real-world response.

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More important though, according to CST members, are the connections and relationships that the joint training scenarios provide between the CST and the civilian emergency response agencies with whom they would work in real emergency situations.

“This is a great opportunity, and really what I think is really one of the biggest benefits of our training today or anytime is our ability to work interoperably with the hazmat teams throughout the state,” said Lt. Col. Eric Leckel, the commander of the 54th CST.

Leckel said that while the joint training opportunities are critical to successful operations, even more important are the opportunities to work with the people and organizations with whom they would respond in real-world scenarios. One of the goals is to establish working relationships in advance of emergency situations.

And why?

“So once we respond to an actual incident, we’re not exchanging business cards when we get there.”

“Our decon folks know their decon folks,” he said of the relationship between Milwaukee’s hazmat team and the National Guard unit. “Our survey folks know their entry folks, so we’re able to flow right into an event.”

The exercise in Milwaukee was part two of a three-day workout for the CST which saw it work with both of Wisconsin’s two type 1 hazmat teams. The CST was in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, July 14 for an exercise with the Eau-Claire/Chippewa Falls hazmat team before travelling back to its home station in Madison and then immediately onto Milwaukee July 16.

sm150716 Z EJ222 109“So we were able to deploy to Eau Claire on Monday, exercise all day with their team and then redeploy back to home station last night and reset and prepare for today’s exercise,” Leckel said.

The unit conducted a similar exercise in Eau Claire.

In Wisconsin, there are a total of 18 different hazmat teams – two of which are type 1 teams. Type 1 teams must be prepared to respond to potential WMD threats, and the CST had the opportunity to train with both of those teams in different parts of the state in the span of just three days.

The scenarios were about as realistic as possible, according to Leckel.