SALT LAKE CITY, Utah –
What started as a low rumble, like that of a large truck driving past the house, quickly turned into picture frames swaying, the house rumbling, and then, an odd feeling of imbalance. Seated at my home office desk, I jumped up and ran for the doorway. It was there that I met my wife in the hallway, who just moments earlier, was working in the adjacent room, having a similar experience.
This couldn’t possibly be an earthquake, could it? Without hesitation, we grabbed our dog, and ran out the front door.
Although it might seem out of the ordinary for Utah, earthquakes aren’t uncommon. According to the Utah Geological Survey, Utah has experienced 17 earthquakes greater than a 5.5 since 1847. While not directly on a fault line, the quakes in the western part of the state are typically related to the Pacific plate, and quakes to the east generally related to coal mining activities.
On March 18, members of the Utah National Guard’s 85th Weapons of Mass Destruction-Civil Support Team were called to an industrial facility near Magna, Utah, the epicenter of a 5.7m earthquake that took place earlier that morning, to assist with a chemical spill.
“We got the call from Unified Fire,“ said Major Todd Christensen, commander of the 85th CST. “The earthquake caused a hydrochloric acid spill at an industrial facility [near Magna, Utah]. Because of everything that was happening, Unified Fire was overtasked and there was concern about the immediate public safety threat with those chemicals.”
The CST deployed a survey team in personal protective equipment, along with equipment that detects hydrochloric acid. Once the operators were able to get a visual of how extensive the spill was, they tested the area and determined there was no immediate threat to public safety.
Utilizing an analytical laboratory system vehicle, which contains a full suite of analysis equipment to support the complete characterization of an unknown hazard, the CST was confident in advising the incident commander that the area was deemed safe for first responders and the local community.
“When we deploy, it’s important to understand that we work for an incident commander,” Christensen emphasized. “We don’t go take over the scene, we’re going directly to support that incident commander in making sure the threats to the public are mitigated.”
The CST is a homeland-defense unit, whose primary mission is to support civil authorities in responding to chemical, biological and nuclear threats, to include weapons of mass destruction, within the homeland. While they are trained to respond to such threats, day-to-day operations consist of assisting first responders with analyzing and identifying unknown agents at a scene, responding to HAZMAT incidents that overwhelm local capabilities, and operating in confined spaces.
They operate a unique equipment set which includes a command vehicle,
operations trailer, a specialized/secure communications vehicle (Unified Command Suite), and a mobile analytical laboratory system with a full suite of chemical, biological, and radiological analysis equipment, giving them the capability to test suspect agents on the scene, a unique capability that the state can dispatch within 90-minutes.
“The partner agencies we work with, specifically the fire department with this one, they’re very good at HAZMAT operations,” said Lt. Col. Robert Dent, medical officer for the 85th CST, discussing the earthquake response. “They took immediate steps to protect the public, and when we showed up, the main task at hand was to go in and characterize the spill.“
Dent said one of the challenges the CST faces is the wide variety of training and preparation for a variety of potential missions.
“Our missions could be anything from an illicit drug lab, to large-scale-industrial spills, to urban search and rescue. Each of those requires a different skillset.”
Members of the CST receive more than 650 hours of HAZMAT and high-tech training from agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Through initial skills training, on-the-job training, and various certifications, the 22 full-time Army and Air National Guardsmen are able to conduct a myriad of operations.
The CST is comprised of various elements, including command, operations, logistics communications, medical, and the survey teams.
“We also have a physician assistant and a medic on the team who can provide medical monitoring and care to our soldiers and airmen on the team,” added Christensen. “They can advise an incident commander or other first responders including hospitals on how to treat, decontaminate, and deal with agents that a populace or first responders may be exposed to.”
Additionally, nearly one-third of the CST has been providing support to the COVID-19 response, working on the state’s task force since its inception. They assisted with the creation of testing and quarantine protocols and the actual testing and transporting of samples for the state public health lab.
“Because of the skillsets we develop in conducting our mission, we’ve been able to transfer those directly over to supporting the state” said Christensen. “We have a medical planner from the team assisting the department of health, as well as our physician assistant and science officer working on the governor’s task force for COVID-19.”
There are 57 WMD-CST’s located throughout each state and U.S. territory including Washington, D.C., with two in California, Florida and New York, all of which are on standby 24/7/365. From chemical spills, drug epidemics, nuclear detection and more, the mission of the CST is broad, but indispensable.
So the next time you feel the ground rattle beneath you, rest assured, the 85th CST of the Utah National Guard is ready at a moment's notice to respond.