Coast Guard National Strike Force: Detect, Deter and Prevent

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Crystalynn Kneen

A bitter cold air blows past the sensor of a small, yellow, hand-held piece of equipment that beeps in its response. This equipment is being used to scan the air for a potential radiological threat. The person holding it is part of a specialized unit that is highly trained in threat detection. It is this equipment and this unit that has been put in place for the 56th presidential inauguration to rapidly respond in the event of a chemical, biological or radiological attack as this country swears in a new commander and chief.

The Atlantic Strike Team, from Fort Dix, N.J., the Pacific Strike Team, stationed in Novato, Calif., and the Gulf Strike Team, stationed in Mobile, Ala., make-up the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Strike Force and have been deployed as part of a comprehensive port security regime designed to safeguard human life, vessels and waterfront facilities against attacks during the inaugural period.

The individuals that make up the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Strike Force are actively participating in this multi-layer security response, using their skills and over 1000 hours of training in detection to mitigate the damage of any potential threat.

“Due to the 56th presidential inauguration, we are here to support this multi-agency response and be an integral part of the team,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Dan Taylor, a response technician for the Atlantic Strike Team.

One of the threats the National Strike Force is trained to detect is radiation. Using the small, yellow piece of equipment, which is called an Identifinder, they are able to detect what sort of radiation is in the area, and whether the isotopes in the radiation are harmful or a natural occurring radioactive material.

“Once you find a source, this piece of equipment captures a spectrum of radio activity. We then send the spectrum sample to a lab, and we get a quick response back if the material is dangerous or nothing to worry about,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Carol Baillie, an emergency medical technician with the Atlantic Strike Team.

For a biological attack, the strike teams use a piece of equipment called a Bio-Threat Alert Detector (BTA). The equipment is used to collect samples and test solid and liquids to see if there is any biological threat in the area.

“Biological material is a living and growing agent,” said Lt. j.g. Ryan Dickson, a response officer with the Gulf Strike Team. “The BTA detector gives an initial positive or negative response of the proteins that are found.”

Lastly, equipment such as a Flame Ionization Detector (FID), which detects organic compounds, and a Photo Ionization Detector (PID), are both used to detect airborne chemical threats.

“The FID and the PID are used for initial entry in a hazardous or unknown environment,” said Baillie. “It gives you a starting point, and we go from there.”

“When these situations arise, a team is assembled and deployed to the incident,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Terence Braver, a response supervisor with the Atlantic Strike Team. “We set up a hazardous material response trailer and depending on the hazard, we use the appropriate equipment for the situation.”

For the inauguration, the National Strike Force has set up roaming detection teams to randomly search areas and vessels using enhanced chemical, biological, radiation detection. They search for any abnormal or elevated atmospheric reading and suspicious activity involved in the security zones.

“If we find anything during these sweeps, we have the proper equipment to identify the substance, decontaminate the area and clean-up as necessary,” said Dickson.

In addition to the inauguration, the National Strike teams have recently responded to the 2008 oil spill in New Orleans, La., which resulted spilled 420,000 gallons of product, Hurricane Ike, the 2007 San Diego, Calif., an oil well fire in Oliver Springs, Tenn., the 2007 Danbury, Conn., Anthrax response and most recently the 2009 Hudson River U.S. Airways plane crash in New York, N.Y.

“We are continuously training for any situation that arises,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Rick Mantici, a response technician for the Atlantic Strike Team. “The National Strike Force has a deep history in supporting this nation in large scale events like these. Our teams have supported the Republican National Convention, The Democratic National Convention and now, this inauguration.”

These teams undergo a lot of training, but for these situations, they’re training consists of an 80-hour Hazardous Material class, a 40-hour Weapons of Mass Destruction class a 160-hour National Fire Protection Association HAZMAT technician course, an 80-hour Basic Strike Team Equipment and Response training as well as numerous other courses.

“We are trained in numerous equipment. We can monitor air for contaminates, oxygen levels, flammability, explosive atmosphere and radioactivity,” said Taylor.

Besides incident equipment, these teams also have personal protective equipment ranging from Level-D, which is their regular daily uniform to Level-A, which protects them from a vapor atmosphere. With this protective equipment, these members are able to assist people with medical issues in areas affected by chemical, biological or radiological attacks.

“Even though we are excited to be apart of this historic event, we are hopeful that our services are not needed,” said Dickson.

As the nation stands ready to welcome a new president, the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force stands a vigil watch to be aware of, deter and detect any act of aggression against the American homeland.

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