by Connie Farrow, Associated Press
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (AP) - The Coast Guard is adept at handling accidental chemical spills, but now its specialists are getting Army training on what to do when chemicals become weapons of mass destruction.
A group of 30 National Strike Force members recently spent four days at Fort Leonard Wood in southwest Missouri also learning about radiological and biological weapons - other hazards they rarely expected to encounter before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Staffers at the U.S. Army Chemical School taught them to recognize when a person having convulsions has been exposed to a nerve agent and when skin redness is the result of a blister agent. They also learned how to use a dosimeter to scan people for radiation.
Some of them were sent fresh from training to the Olympic games in Salt Lake City, where there is concern that worldwide media attention and throngs of people could create an attractive target for terrorists.
"It's pretty low probability for us to encounter anything weaponized, but as you realize, and I'm sure the rest of the country does, anything is possible these days," said Lt. Cmdr. Ronald Cantin, executive officer of the Pacific Strike Team.
Fort Leonard Wood has long provided chemical, engineering and military police training for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Roughly 20 percent of the 10,000 uniformed personnel at the post are from other branches of the military. The conference Jan. 22-25 marked the first time the Coast Guard has trained at the Pulaski County post.
"The exchange of capabilities is really a great opportunity for us," said Brig. Gen. Patricia Nilo, commander of the Army's chemical school. "They have an expertise in hazardous materials, and we have an expertise in warfare agents."
The National Strike Force was created in 1973 as a Coast Guard special force under the National Oil and Hazardous Substance Pollution Contingency Plan. It is composed of three teams: Atlantic at Fort Dix, N.J.; Gulf at Mobile, Ala.; and Pacific at Novato, Calif. It also includes the National Strike Force Coordination Center, based in Elizabeth City, N.C.
They are the Coast Guard's rapid-response team for oil and hazardous material incidents. Members provide technical and managerial expertise to the Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency and others when there is a catastrophe.
"The National Strike Force moves in after it's already happened," said Lt. Dennis Branson, the Coast Guard's liaison officer at Fort Leonard Wood. "They deal with what we call, 'consequence management."'
But they also are sent to "national security special events" - such as political conventions and the recent World Economic Forum in New York. The men and women of the National Strike Force are at the Olympics as part of a complex network of agencies providing rapid response in the event of chemical, biological or radiological attacks.
"We are often called in because we do take a very commonsense approach to things," said Branson, adding that the National Strike Force also is easily activated because the Coast Guard is under the Department of Transportation, rather than the Defense Department.
Like many governmental agencies, the role of the Coast Guard and its strike force changed on Sept. 11.
Within 18 hours after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, the Atlantic Strike Team was in New York City. The Gulf and Pacific teams soon joined them to help, among other things, monitor air quality and operate washing stations for rescue workers.
Strike force members also were deployed to Washington, D.C., and Boca Raton, Fla., to help clear buildings infected by anthrax.
Those missions reinforced the need for the strike force to be better prepared to respond to weaponized materials, even though the Coast Guard-Army partnership was forged months before the terrorism incidents, Branson said.
"We recognize that the biological stuff is a new arena for us," said Chief Petty Officer Bruce Cotter of the Pacific Strike Team. "We have to make the effort to adjust to that and get our training up to speed, just like we are with chemicals."