Right & Left of Boom


Something at the birthday party was making people sick.

That’s all the small team of National Guardsmen knew as they made their way into the Clarks Summit State Hospital near Scranton, Pennsylvania, last October.

Part of an evaluation of the state’s 3rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team (CST), the training scenario at the hospital presented another opportunity for the joint team to prove their skills while also preparing for future missions.

The soldiers and airmen methodically made their way through party favors and birthday treats, using a number of tools and sensors, before finding the culprit — a smoothie station intentionally tainted with cholera by a disgruntled co-worker.

The 3rd CST, like all of the Guard’s 57 CSTs (there is also one Army Reserve CST based in Germany), continually hones its skills amid emerging and evolving threats. The training comes while it is on call 24/7/365 to respond to an emergency.

“We do a tremendous amount of training,” says the team commander, Maj. Frank Brown. “Every 18 months, we’re required to do a full evaluation.”

Created 20 years ago, the 22-member, full-time teams must keep pace with an increasingly dangerous and shrinking world. Their threat picture includes a vast array of deadly compounds and a growing number of people willing to use them. They’re also available for accidental releases and natural disasters.

Last year, Guard CSTs nationwide conducted more than 1,300 missions, including both pre-planned assignments and emergency responses. Teams also participated in some 660 training exercises and 1,000 other calls in support of civil authorities.

The more than 3,000 events supported by the 57 CSTs — one in every state, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia, with an additional team each in California, Florida and New York — are more than double the annual workload of a decade ago.

Lt. Col. Edwin Leavitt, the commander of the 32nd CST in Maryland, says the operational tempo of his team has increased every year since it was formed in 2004.

Still, CST actions go largely unheralded and their capabilities little known to the public due to a mission that is largely conducted behind the scenes.

In Maryland last year, the 32nd CST deployed to the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center in Easton, Maryland, following a re-port that suspicious items were leaking an unknown, potentially hazardous powder. The team responded and resolved the incident without fanfare, enabling the hospital to quickly return to full operations.

CSTs always work in support of local incident commanders, says Lt. Col. Jenn Cope, the National Guard Bureau’s CST program manager.

Teams are called out in response to possible emergencies, but they’ve also become a fixture at high-profile events, working along-side local and federal partners.

If there is a mass gathering of the American people — be it the Super Bowl, national political convention or a visit from a world leader — invariably there will be at least one CST there in the background, usually dressed in unassuming khakis and polo shirts. While the crowd’s attention is focused on a game or speaker, they sweep the venue for hazardous substances and monitor radiation levels, all the while staying in constant contact with civil authorities.

We don't just sit and wait for something to happen. We get out and make sure it doesn't happen.

—Maj. Robert Burgess, the commander of the Connecticut National Guard's 14th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team

THE EMPHASIS ON PREVENTION hasn’t always been the case.

CSTs initially focused on responding to terrorist attacks, so-called “right of boom” missions. Teams can deploy quickly and identify onsite more than 150,000 chemical and biological agents and radiation. They can also offer advice on response measures and assist with requests for additional military assistance.

Follow-on military resources would likely also come from the Guard. CSTs are just the tip of the spear of rapidly deployable Guard assets available in the wake of a catastrophic event. Other units are on-call to provide search and extraction, mass decontamination, medical treatment and fatalities recovery (see below).

Maj. Robert Burgess, the commander of Connecticut’s 14th CST, says much of the teams’ expertise and  equipment can also be used “left of boom.” “We don’t just sit and wait for something to happen,” he says. “We get out and make sure it doesn’t happen.”

The shift has come amid an ever-expanding mission set that is, in part, due to increased threats. But it’s also a function of growing knowledge of CST capabilities in homeland-security circles, officials say.

“They are unique,” Cope says. “It’s a unit conducting missions every single day.”

The missions are diverse. They have included responses to ricin attacks, volcanic eruptions, lost radiological sources, contaminations from discarded chemical weapons and drug-related investigations.

And while some of a CST’s capabilities exist in other agencies, no organization in the nation can offer the full breadth of capabilities a CST offers, Cope says. “There’s no one else in the states more uniquely qualified.”

CSTs trace their history to 1998, when President Bill Clinton is-sued Presidential Decision Directive 62, which created 10 specially designed National Guard rapid assessment and initial detection, or RAID, teams to respond to an attack involving WMD. The name changed later to emphasize their place under civil authorities.

“We must do more to protect our people,” Clinton said in announcing the creation of the teams during a May 1998 speech at U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “We must be able to recognize a biological attack quickly in order to stop its spread.”

At the time, al-Qaida was on the rise, urging its followers to mount mass-casualty attacks on airports, skyscrapers, nuclear power plants and stadiums in the United States.

Congress quickly approved funding for the first 10 CSTs, one in each Federal Emergency Management Agency region. The first nine— in California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania,  Texas and Washington — were certified over several weeks  in July and August 2001.

There were naysayers. Some said the threat was exaggerated. Others said the teams would not be able to respond quickly enough to be of any utility. That was before Sept. 11, 2001.

New York’s 2nd CST was among the first military units to respond to the scene of 9/11 attacks in New York City. It remained on site for weeks. The team began preparing for its response within seconds of the crash of the first aircraft into the World Trade Center and launched shortly after the twin towers collapsed.

The team quickly confirmed that no chemical or biological agents were involved in the attack. It then provided a variety of technical support and advice to authorities while overseeing air-quality monitoring and providing communications support.

In the weeks following the attacks, those original CSTs — joined by a newly certified Georgia team in October — were repeatedly called to help secure major sporting events and respond to the discovery of anthrax spores in mail in Florida, New York and the District of Columbia.

Malcholm Reese, the NGB joint program manager and liaison to the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Defense at Fort Detrick, Maryland, says those forming the original CSTs could not have envisioned how the world would change so quickly.

Reese, then the program manager for the CSTs, was responsible for ensuring those first teams were properly trained, organized and equipped.

He says early efforts were focused on response to events like the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, where attackers released sarin onto three lines of the Tokyo Metro during rush hour, killing 13 people and severely injuring 50 others.

The 9/11 attacks and subsequent anthrax scares convinced leaders that more teams were needed. NGAUS was a driving force with a legislative priority for several years of a CST in every state, territory and the District of Columbia.

Cope says the 9/11 attacks were the first of several turning points in the evolution of CSTs. Years later, Hurricane Katrina would help convince Congress to approve CST use for all hazards, not just in response to attacks.

After the massive 2005 storm slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi, teams responded in a training status. With cell-phone towers down, the CSTs’ rolling suites with satellite communications capability enabled response crews to talk to each other. Now, CSTs are part of the standard response to storms in many states, providing communications support or monitoring at-risk facilities such as water treatment plants or oil refineries.

Another important point occurred in 2013, when the Defense Department wanted to decrease the number of CSTs in the face of looming budget cuts under the Budget Control Act 2011. On the day lawmakers were set to discuss the issue, Massachusetts’ 1st CST responded to the Boston Marathon bombing. Congress turned down the Pentagon request.

There are other organizations that do pieces of what we do. But not all of it.

—Maj. Frank Brown, the commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 3rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team

THE LATEST MAJOR SHIFT for CSTs came in 2018, with an increase in fentanyl overdoses amid the opioid crisis and the recognition of fourth-generation nerve agents, such as Novichok, following a high-profile assassination attempt in England. CSTs are among the only forces in the nation trained to respond to those agents.

Reese says constant evolution has kept CSTs on the cutting edge of responding to the use of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives. But he warns that continuing evolution requires vigilance.

“We can’t lose sight of where we’ve come from and where we want to go,” he says.

Emerging threats help drive the constant need to re-evaluate and upgrade CST equipment and training.

New equipment is fielded each year. Informal and formal networks, such as a CST Working Group, help keep the community in touch with the latest information, both for equipment and potential threats.

Teams now all have robots similar to those used by ordnance disposal units to conduct stand-off work. Many CST commanders also would like unmanned aerial vehicles for a set of eyes above a work site.

“You’ve got to stay ready, relevant and reliable to the fight,” says Burgess, the Connecticut CST commander. “The threats are constantly changing. If we don’t stay ahead of it, we lose relevancy.”

But a CST’s greatest strength, according to multiple team leaders, is not a piece of equipment, but rather the relationships the teams form with their community partners.

Brown, the Pennsylvania CST commander, says teams are constantly training alongside local, state and federal authorities.

At the 3rd CST’s two-day evaluation last year, the Pennsylvania Guardsmen located the cholera-spiked smoothies one day and, on the next, were part of a team that arrived at Steam Town National Historic Park for a report of a suspicious railroad boxcar.

Brown says the second scenario replicated a suspected terrorist attack involving radioactive material. The team identified the threat and helped contain it. In such a scenario, the CST would also advise the incident commander on other available military assets.

“The sum totality of our ability, both in the equipment and personal side, doesn’t exist in a single capacity,” he says. “There are other organizations that do pieces of what we do. But not all of it.”

That CSTs are among the most stable units in the military helps cement relationships with civil authorities. Some teams go largely unchanged personnel-wise for many years.

This is, in large part, due to training requirements. It can take more than two years for a team member to become trained and integrated into a CST. That means soldiers and airmen must commit to staying with the unit for at least three years to complete the training.

The hands-on nature of the job also leads many to settle into a team and serve for an extended time. Units become tight-knit with a lot of historical knowledge available, Cope says. But career progression suffers.

“It’s a yin and yang,” she says.

TODAY, one of the biggest threats CSTs face is their own operational tempo. While equipment and training are constantly updated in response to new threats, technological advancement and improved tactics, team size has remained constant.

Just as they were in 2001, each CST has just 22 personnel (seven officers and 15 enlisted personnel), despite  their increasing workloads.

Cope says officials have looked at increasing the number of team positions, but that would require Congress approving more Active Guard and Response personnel in each state.

Burgess, the CST commander in Connecticut, says it’s a challenge as a commander to keep up with the pace of a team without over-extending the unit.

“One of the ways to do that is you’ve got to keep things in perspective,” he says. “A commander could very quickly drive a unit into the ground.”

In Connecticut, the team has looked for ways to be more efficient with their time. They’ve begun sending fewer personnel and less equipment to events that don’t require a large response. Burgess says he relies on his soldiers and airmen to innovate and find other ways to streamline operations without hampering future responses.

“Sometimes people say they want to do things by the book,” he says. “Well, right now, in the CST community, we’re still writing the book.”

Cope says CSTs are unlikely to see fewer missions in the coming years. And she said she expects individual members to pick up inter-national missions — mostly through the State Partnership Program.

But Burgess believes teams could one day deploy to support combatant commanders, as leaders continue to discuss how CSTs fit into national security.

While CSTs do a good job of promoting their capabilities in their communities, he says more work must be done to show senior leadership what the teams’ missions and capabilities are and how that fits into keeping the homeland safe.

“CSTs are out in the field every day,” Burgess says. “This is my area of operation. I see myself as almost being deployed. I get it, I’m home and it’s not like being in the Middle East. But when I send folks across the line of departure, I’m sending them out to protect the homeland.” 

DREW BROOKS can be reached at 202-408-5885 or [email protected].

Guard CBRNE Forces


MISSION: Rapidly identify chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear substances, assess consequences; advise incident commanders on response measures and assist requests for follow on military support.

PERSONNEL: 22 (all full time) divided among six sections: command, operations, communications, administration/logistics, medical/analytical and survey

DEPLOYMENT SPEED: Advance team deploys within 90 minutes of notification; main body within three hours

NUMBER: 57 (at least one in every state, Guam, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia, with two in California, Florida and New York)

FIRST FIELDED: 1999 (operational in 2001)


MISSION: Provide immediate response capability to include casualty search and extraction, medical triage and treatment, ambulatory and nonambulatory decontamination, and fatality search and recovery.

PERSONNEL: 197, including 10 full-timers, from existing Army and Air National Guard units

DEPLOYMENT SPEED: Advance team deploys within six hours of incident; main body within 12 hours

NUMBER: 17 (at least one in each FEMA region)



MISSION: Provide command and control of CSTs and CERFPs in each Federal Emergency Management Agency region, incident site security and life-saving response capability.

PERSONNEL: 577, including 150 full-timers. Life-saving and security elements (about 370 personnel) come from existing Army and Air National Guard units

DEPLOYMENT SPEED: Advance team deploys within six hours of notification; main body within 12 hours

NUMBER: 10 (one in each FEMA region)


Source: National Guard Bureau