Of the more than 445 thousand people who thronged to Summerfest this year at Milwaukee’s lakefront, a handful were checking out more than the music.
Members of the Wisconsin National Guard’s 54th Civil Support Team (CST) were discreetly monitoring the large music festival for potential threats.
“We primarily provide environmental monitoring unless something suspicious is found,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Kelly, commander of the 22-member full-time team of specialists, “and then we can go into actual characterization and identification of the threat, and figure out how we’re actually going to do next. We’ll do radiation monitoring, we can do air monitoring for toxic chemicals. That’s mainly what we do at those.
The 54th CST — a Madison, Wisconsin-based full-time team of Soldiers and Airmen trained and equipped to respond to emergencies or terrorist events involving weapons of mass destruction, toxic industrial chemicals or natural disasters — can do passive and active monitoring, based on the venue and what they have been requested to provide.
“We have sensor area arrays that we can set up that will do that air monitoring for us,” Kelly said, “and we have detection equipment where we go out and roam intermittently throughout the event to see if there’s anything we need to be aware of.”
Summerfest is an example of what is referred to as a steady-state event — the U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines steady state as “normal operations” — and the 54th CST supports many of these routine but large-attendance in Wisconsin, as such events have the potential to be targets for terrorist activity. Supported events include University of Wisconsin Badger football games, Green Bay Packers football games, the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wisconsin, roughly 70 miles southeast of Superior, as well as NASCAR and Indy Car races at Elkhart Lake’s Road America. Last year they supported the PGA Ryder Cup at Kohler’s Whistling Straits golf course.
Kelly said the 54th CST also supports what Homeland Security defines as national security special events — a nationally or internationally significant event that could be a potential terrorist target. Examples the 54th CST has supported include the Boston Marathon, the Super Bowl and presidential inaugurations.
“During the election season we’re working a lot with Secret Service’s HAMMER [hazardous agent mitigation medical emergency response] Team if the president is coming to Wisconsin — they usually request us to be on standby,” Kelly said. “We’ll slice off part of our 22-person team, send 4-5 personnel there with a vehicle to be able to respond. Usually for [presidential] visits they request us to bring our analytical lab, the mobile lab, so we’ll bring that as well for rapid identification.”
No matter if it’s a steady-state event, national security special event or a no-notice alert, the 54th CST must receive an official request for support, and Wisconsin’s adjutant general must authorize deploying the team.
“We can start getting everything together and getting the team prepped while we’re waiting for that, but before we do any actions on the site we do need authorization,” Kelly said.
If the request is to support a real-world situation, Kelly said the requesting agency often sends images of what they are looking at.
“We can [then] make a really good assessment of what we’re looking at, and if we’re the ones who should actually be responding to provide them support,” Kelly said. “We’ll make a request or a recommendation up through the Joint Operations Center to the adjutant general to request permission to support.”
In the case of Summerfest, the Milwaukee Police Department submitted the request for support. The 54th then evaluates the request based on the scope of the event and the team’s schedule, though the team’s relationship with the requesting agency also factors into the decision to provide support. Sometimes a request is granted in order to develop a working relationship with the supporting agency.
“If we have an emergency, it’s better if we show up and know the people we’re going to be working with rather than meeting each other for the first time,” Kelly explained.
According to Capt. Peter Vakos, 54th CST operations officer, supporting as many as 30 different events per year increases their competence and confidence.
“We have a lot of different skill sets on the team,” Vakos said. “One of the things that supporting these events also does is it gives us experience on that equipment. Doing these steady-state events gives everyone that hands-on equipment time and training for that, and the environment we’re training in. We try to be a team of experts in our field.”
“We get to work on not only prepping the equipment before we go, but the actual deployment — arriving on scene and setting everything up,” Kelly said. “We usually do pre-event sweeps — we’ll load up our equipment and search, and then we’ll do interim sweeps.
“Occasionally we’ll get hits on our monitoring equipment, but when we go to investigate — say, for radiation — it will be a medical isotope where somebody recently got cancer treatment,” Kelly continued.
“And then you’re reminded that your equipment works,” Vakos said.
Kelly said that his team has encountered suspicious items, such as unattended bags, while supporting these events, but has not yet come across anything nefarious. In such cases, if they are the first to respond, they take initial meter readings of the suspicious item. If the item were to pose a threat based on those readings, the 54th CST would notify the event’s incident command.
“We always are working for someone — we’re never in charge,” Kelly said. “We might be the lead on going in and detecting materials, but we make recommendations and we carry out the guidance or orders of the incident commander. If it was a [weapon of mass destruction], the FBI would come in and provide guidance.”
The 54th CST has developed regional teams, based on the state’s four hazardous materials regional areas, to respond to requests for support. The federally funded and federally trained team does not charge for its services.
Civil Support Teams date back to 1998 as a way to counter the growing threat of domestic and international terrorism. The National Guard currently has 57 such teams — New York, Florida and California have two teams each. Such units are on standby around the clock, with an advance team deploying within 90 minutes of a request for support being approved, and the main body deploying within three hours of approval. Unit members receive more than 650 hours of hazardous materials and sophisticated equipment training, which is used to identify chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents and substances. The team assesses present and potential effects of such substances and advises on appropriate response measures.
“It’s probably the best job in the Guard,” Kelly said.