After two Madison Police officers and a third subject emerged from an abandoned warehouse “suffering” from inexplicable redness and burning sensations during an Oct. 13 training exercise, law enforcement officers knew they would need some additional expertise.
Enter the Wisconsin National Guard’s 54th Civil Support Team (CST), the state’s full-time response team for emergencies or terrorist events that involve weapons of mass destruction, toxic industrial chemicals or natural disasters.
The CST is available to incident commanders statewide 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to offer additional skills, equipment and expertise in the event of a scenario like the training exercise that unfolded Oct. 13 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Thankfully, the 22 Soldiers and Airmen of the 54th CST regularly prepare and train alongside fire departments and law enforcement agencies around the state to be ready to serve as the state’s first military responder.
Adding to the complexity of the situation was the threat of an active shooter, which required the response of Madison’s SWAT team.
Capt. Vic Wahl, who runs the Madison Police Department’s West District and commands the SWAT team, said the exercise was designed to test all facets of a response in a realistic scenario, including a response to an unknown substance.
“There are a lot of different problems that we might be called on to fix in the city of Madison, and there’s capabilities that we don’t have to resolve some of those things,” Wahl said. “The 54th has expertise, training, equipment and knowledge that we just don’t have, so it’s important for us to be able to have relationships with the unit…”
The CST’s Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Tracy, who helped plan the exercise, said that building those relationships with the unit’s civilian counterparts is a critical component of the regular exercises the CST conducts.
“So that Madison feels comfortable if they have a question revolving around chemicals or maybe in the future, radiological or biological hazards, maybe they would call us,” Tracy said.
“The value is always that we train first, so when it comes time that something really happens, there’s familiarity here,” he said later. “There’s a common phrase that ‘you don’t want to be exchanging business cards on the day it really happens.’ So a lot of this is pre-coordination. The big thing is to build that muscle memory with our civilian responders.”
In the training scenario, the Madison Police Department requested CST assistance to help determine what threat the unknown substance posed to its SWAT teams and the community as a whole after finding lab equipment inside the abandoned warehouse. The exercise forced the CST to accomplish its mission within the context of an ongoing active shooter scenario inside the building.
Ultimately the CST sent environmental monitoring equipment into the warehouse aboard a Madison Police Department robot. Eventually, members of the CST’s survey team entered the building to gather more information for the unit’s science officer to analyze in its mobile lab. The unit’s mobile lab is one of the key capabilities it has available for incident commanders when first responders cannot determine the nature of the threats posed by unknown substances.
1st Lt. Charlotte Koshick, the CST’s science officer, analyzes those substances in the lab and explained that the unit can conduct chemical analysis of bacteria, toxins, viruses and more on-site.
“We can give incident commanders and first responders a lot of information they can use,” she said. “No other first responders are going to have the ability to do the analysis that we can do in a mobile lab. We’re very fast, and we can actually come and bring the lab to the site, so we can instantly start the process and really integrate in with the different agencies.”
Tracy said the CST was thankful for the opportunity the Madison Police Department provided to train for the unique scenario they faced.
“We always try to work with our local guys as much as possible,” he said of working with Madison’s SWAT team. “We don’t want to just work with fire. We don’t want to just work with the bomb squad. We want to mix it up.”
Training with different components from different agencies is critical, he said, to ensuring the CST is ready when needed.
“If you look at the state of Wisconsin, to include citizens and first responders, the civilian community at large, our number one responsibility is to keep them safe,” he added. “So this just moves us into that direction and gets us working with the people that we will have to support.”
The exercise in Madison was one of many that the 54th CST conducts over the course of the year to ensure it is ready to serve the people of Wisconsin when needed. The call will inevitably come. According to Lt. Col. Eric Leckel, the unit’s commander, the CST conducted more than 100 missions last year, more than half of which were standby missions are major events. But a handful were actual responses where law enforcement agencies requested the CST’s support, illustrating the importance of remaining always ready, and always there.