34th CST sharpens response skills during exercise in Maryland

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team conduct a site assessment during a training exercise July 21, 2020, at H Steven Blum Military Reservation in Glen Arm, Maryland. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Chazz Kibler)

GLEN ARM, Maryland — Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team honed their chemical and biological recognition skills during a training exercise July 21-23, 2020, at H Steven Blum Military Reservation in Glen Arm, Maryland.

18 of the CST’s Soldiers and Airmen participated in the exercise, hosted by the Department of the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds-based Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center, marking the unit’s first external training event since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first ever for about 15% of their personnel due to recent turnover.

“The purpose was to recognize chemical properties of chemical warfare agents as well as biological warfare agent laboratory processes, identify their medical countermeasures and advise mitigation strategies,” explained Capt. Jason C. Dodge, the 34th CST deputy commander. 

During the exercise, the CST conducted two separate full-scale scenarios, with a focus on chemical and biological warfare agents. Dressed out in protective suits, team members performed reconnaissance on the sites before taking samples and analyzing collected substances to determine the severity of the hazard and the appropriate next steps.

The CST was able to conduct this training event in Maryland even though they continue to support Virginia’s COVID-19 response efforts. Since May 2020, the CST has conducted dozens of sample collection missions as part of the VNG’s overall COVID-19 testing capability. Necessary precautions due to COVID-19 also created a new challenge for the unit as they conducted this training mission. 

“Impacts to this training scenario as a result of COVID included communication challenges,” said Dodge. “We could not cluster in our trailers  including our mobile command center. Consequently, we conducted increased communication face-to-face outdoors in spite of the heat index.”

That heat index presented additional obstacles, further complicating the reconnaissance and sample collection lanes during the exercise. 

(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Chazz Kibler)

“Due to the heat index we learned to limit each downrange mission to 35 minutes,” explained Dodge. “This was a challenge for us because our survey members have historically spent nearly an hour down range in PPE. It took a conscientious effort from the top down to limit expectations so as to last the marathon that is lanes training.”

The unit also practiced treating mock heat casualties during the training event. 

The exercise was conducted in preparation for a scheduled training event in late August 2020, which will be externally evaluated by U.S. Army North’s Civil Support Readiness Group – East. Before that, the unit has one additional scheduled training rotation which will focus on response to a mock radiological hazard event.

“This could take the shape of an industrial accident or nefarious activity such as radiological dispersal device or radiological poisoning,” said Dodge. 

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.

A 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.

MORE PHOTOS: 34th CST trains in Maryland