By Kelsey Givens
Imagine this: An executive at a big casino going about his daily business receives a letter in the mail.
He opens it to discover a threatening note and a suspicious white powder covering everything — a powder that now covers his hands.
He becomes very ill after touching the letter and the unknown substance that came with it.
How should law enforcement respond in this situation? How do they investigate while keeping both the public and themselves safe?
That was the scenario gamed by several local first response agencies alongside the National Guard’s 92nd Civil Support Team at the Nye County Public Safety Multipurpose Training Center on Thursday.
Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue and Las Vegas Metro’s Armor team were both at the center practicing working and communicating with the military unit.
“Today, we’re working on joint tactics techniques and how we do operations together simultaneously,” Maj. Brett Compston, deputy commander of the National Guard unit said.
The 92nd Civil Support Team is made up of 22 active national guardsmen and women from the Army and Air Force, all of whom are hazardous materials technicians.
Together, the groups form a local weapons of mass destruction response team, one of 57 in the United States.
During a practice session like the one yesterday, the team incorporates first responders from local municipalities and the entire group practices and role plays every step they would likely take in response to an emergency situation.
They bring in communications trucks, a mobile lab and larger command vehicles to give them everything from phone service to Internet to fax machines to surveillance they would need during a crisis.
The mobile lab is used to test DNA, toxins and chemical agents quickly and safely so responders know what kind of threat level they are dealing with and how best to approach it.
The team also sets up a real decontamination tunnel between the command site where they park their vehicles and the contaminated site where the threat is found.
“We’re the support for the first responders, we’re the second response,” Compston said.
Everything is simulated as close to real life as it can be without putting anyone in serious danger, Maj. David Sellen, commander of the 92nd Civil Support Team said.
“We try to get as close to reality as possible,” he said. “We train for what we hope never happens, but we want to be prepared.”
Everything down to the hazardous materials they are working to identify and find is simulated as closely as possible.
On Thursday, they used a chemical inside one of the practice buildings that wasn’t a threat to anyone outside the building, but could produce effects similar to tear gas to anyone who went inside without proper protection.
Even chemicals such as bleach are used to give responders a chemical that won’t put their lives in grave danger, but can give them the readings they are trying to simulate.
“It’s like graduate level training,” Sellen said.
He and Compston both noted the guards and first responders are given a loose scenario, and then they can free play it as they see fit from there.
In Thursday’s scenario, four members of the National Guard team were suited up in full body suits with breathing masks and purified air canisters.
Sellen said there was only one level of protection higher than what they were wearing.
The suits are made of a shiny, tan, non-porous material that makes the inside of the outfit 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the temperature outside.
In high heat like Nevada sees in summer, it takes a well trained person with a lot of endurance to wear something like that for long periods of time, Compston said.
When they’re done with a practice investigation, the team even practices the proper way to clean up chemical agents.
The test site even fit with the reality bill as it looks like a small ghost town complete with a mobile home and porch swing, gas pump and other decorated buildings.
When the scenario has completely run its course, the team sits down and discusses what they did well and what they can improve upon, Sellen said.
“We take notes while they work about the good and the bad,” Sellen said. “Then we commend and encourage what was done well and look at where we can improve.”
Though it isn’t used everyday, the 92nd Civil Support Team has responded to real threats in Nevada before. In 2008, the team responded to a ricin scare in Las Vegas.
During yesterday’s scenario, key decision makers from both PVFRS and Metro’s Armor team played along in what their positions would be if a situation like the scenario ever arose.
“This is good relationship development for us,” Compston said. “We don’t want to be exchanging business cards the day of an emergency,” he added.
These types of joint practice sessions also teach the various response teams how to communicate most effectively with one another so they aren’t confused by another organization’s jargon, Compston said.
Though the Nye County Sheriff’s Office was not involved in yesterday’s practice, Compston said Sheriff Tony DeMeo was out on the site earlier in the day.
Compston said they hope to work together in November when the unit plans to come back for another, much larger, training session.