34th CST completes challenging two-day training exercise at SMR

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team conduct collective training lanes during a two-day exercise Aug. 25 and 27, 2020, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team completed a challenging two-day training exercise August 25 and 27, 2020, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 

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 this exercise, the team was presented with a unique scenario involving a mock planned CBRNE attack at a large music festival. 

Like in other scenarios, the team was tasked with donning protective equipment and performing a reconnaissance of the suspected site to identify the hazards before collecting samples for testing. During this scenario, however, the target site was located in a pitch black building with music blaring at loud levels from a speaker complex, making standard means of communication impossible. 

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the During the exercise, the unit performed reconnaissance surveys and collected samples to be tested for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive threats. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

“The goal of this exercise was to stress the survey team with both sensory inputs and variety of biological material and chemicals in a clandestine laboratory setting,” explained Capt. Jason Dodge, the 34th CST’s deputy commander. “The low light and distracting audible media challenged the survey team while they gathered information to understand the tools of a hypothetical domestic terrorist: homemade crowd control agent and homemade explosives.”

In the scenario, the enemy had planted a pepper spray dispersal devise in the speaker complex, with the intention to disorient the festival’s crowd before deploying explosives. There were two target sites for the survey team to explore, including the speakers and a lab tucked behind a partition. The team had to identify the target sites and collect samples for collection using hand-held lights to see in the dark. 

The tricky scenario was created by two CST team members who stepped out of their usual roles to run the exercise, science officer Capt. Samantha Vittorioso and Sgt. 1st Class William Havens, a medic. Dodge said having internal assets run the scenario instead of external evaluators provided multiple benefits. 

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

“They had complete autonomy in setting up and managing this training lane,” said Dodge. ”In regards to running training lanes internally, it is a good opportunity to step outside one’s lane to think through the bigger picture, to anticipate questions and information important to other sections. This assists our members who work in highly specialized skillsets communicate effectively when facing challenging scenarios that require everyone thinking critically and cooperatively.”

“Being on the planning end is interesting,” said Vittorioso. “I get to use some of the information that I have seen over the years, and then tie them in with real world missions that I have either been a part of or have heard about. Sgt. 1st Class Havens is very handy and he is always willing and able to construct many things in order to enhance the realism of the training lanes.”

Havens used that handiness to construct the speaker complex used in the scenario, creating a new challenge for the survey teams.

“We always make sure that we add something that the team has not seen before in order to enhance training value,” said Vittorioso. “This lane was no exception, and challenged the entire team both with reacting to a change of wind direction, and with overcoming unexpected obstacles downrange.”

Despite the challenges presented by Vittorioso and Haven’s design, Dodge said the CST responded admirably. 

“The team performed very well. Impairing the survey team’s sensory experience is not a typical training environment,” said Dodge. “The downrange team members stayed focused on their reconnaissance and fine motor skills during sample operations in spite of the increased physiological stress. We are very proud of them.”

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

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.

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