The streets of East Lansing near Michigan State University became a military command post Thursday morning. Soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard rolled into town a couple of blocks from Grand River Avenue to test their response to a simulated environmental hazard. The exercise was part of the Guard’s required training, and evaluators were on hand to judge how well they handled a potentially life-threatening situation.
WKAR’s Kevin Lavery spent some time with the troops.
Major Tim Densham got a pre-dawn phone call Thursday morning...and in his line of work, that usually means a rush out the door. Densham commands the 51st Civil Support Team, a Michigan National Guard unit trained to help civilian first responders identify and dispose of potentially deadly substances.
Densham’s team is based near Battle Creek. They’re trained to arrive wherever they’re called within 90 minutes. They were initially called to Lansing on Tuesday for one training exercise. Two days later, Densham’s phone rang again, with a different scenario in East Lansing.
“Overnight, they had a person discovered that had all sorts of unusual medical conditions, and his two police officers that he had respond to that ended up getting sick as well,” says Densham.
As the morning unfolds, it’s learned the victim was found near a commercial truck. Outside the command post, a two-man recon team dons protective suits impervious to chemicals and radiation. As they prepare to roll out, so does Densham.
“I’ve got to get back,” explains Densham. “I hear my guys are about ready to go down range and so I need to get out there and be with them.”
The recon team of Sergeants Ruel Taylor and Lucas Montavo take off in a black vehicle, a sort of hybrid jeep-tractor combination. They arrive at the truck, cautiously surveying all sides before getting close.
As they peer and prod the vehicle, another team of observers stands by, watching and grading each movement. Among them is exercise specialist Tim Strother.
“They’ll go and be familiar; take photos and everything of the outside of the facility, whether it’s the box truck or a building to make sure nothing is leaking in regards to contaminants or anything on the outside,” Strother says. “So they’ll check that.”
The inspection takes well over an hour. The team takes photos and records identification numbers, all the while peering cautiously into the cab and scanning for contamination. Detecting bombs or chemicals is a laborious process with no room for shortcuts. Strother says the Civil Support Team undergoes this formal evaluation every 18 months.
“Well, these teams always do well,” he says. “They’re well trained and very educated soldiers that do the job.”
Finally, Taylor and Montavo are cleared to check the trailer. More scanning, more sampling. They open the doors, and suddenly...
Inside, the hide and seek game is on. Cardboard boxes are stacked on metal oil drums. The alarm still squeals. The readings are getting higher.
(Soldier on radio: “IED components”)
I.E.D. stands for improvised explosive device. Homemade bombs. And that’s not all. The team notices a bluish powder spilling from a punctured drum.
The recon team won’t collect any samples; that’s the job of a second wave. For now, the men return to base for decontamination. This happens under a large yellow tent stretched over what looks like a bottling factory assembly line.
The suits come off and the soldiers prepare for a debrief. Another team will rotate in for the next phase of the exercise. Team members gather all the data as it comes in so they can brief the incident commander – in this drill, the East Lansing police – about how to proceed.
And what was found in the truck?
“Radiation, potential nerve agent...a blue substance material; we’re not sure what that is,” says Maj. Tim Densham.
A full analysis will determine what the substances – the simulated substances, of course – really were. Densham says these exercises are meant to test their ability and adaptability. No scenario is ever the same.
“It never gets old,” Densham says. “Because we need everybody just to have that edge and stay sharp.”
Sharp enough to handle the real thing, if that moment ever arrives.