Civil Support Team training addresses rise in drug ’50-100 times stronger than heroin’

Police in HAZMAT suits train with the Utah National Guard’s 85th WMD Civil Support Team , St. George, Utah, March 20, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — If a caravan of emergency and military vehicles is seen traversing the roadways across Washington County, there is no need to fear – it’s part of the five-day training exercises taking place in Southern Utah this week.

More than 50 first responders, including police, fire and EMS train with the Utah National Guard’s 85th WMD Civil Support Team, St. George, Utah, March 20, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Known as “Operation Red Rock” and hosted by the St. George Fire Department, the Utah National Guard’s 85th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team – or WMD-CST – is in Southern Utah to assist in exercises related to various aspects of the emergency management infrastructure.

The mission of the 85th WMD-CSTs is to assess a suspected nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological event in support of a local incident commander and advise civilian responders regarding appropriate actions, Lt. Col. Christoper Caldwell of the Civil Support Team said.

However, Caldwell said that while the team is a “weapons of mass destruction team,” it also provides support, training and advisory functions to local law enforcement, in addition to equipment and experience from working in different parts of the state and derived from extensive training provided by the military.

Along those lines, the practice event Tuesday in St. George addressed a threat much closer to home.

Utah is in the middle of a seismic shift when it comes to the deadly drug trade, particularly when it comes to the opioid crisis. From 2013-2015, Utah ranked 7th highest in the nation for drug overdose deaths, and opioid deaths in 2016 alone rose 78 percent, according to the Utah Department of Health.

One opioid, fentanyl, a potent synthetic opiate, was the focus of Tuesday’s training, as deaths resulting from the drug now account for nearly two-thirds of all drug overdoses in the country.

Police and firefighters don HAZMAT suits while training in scenario Tuesday with the Utah National Guard’s 85th WMD Civil Support Team, St. George, Utah, March 20, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

“Fentanyl is very deadly, it’s used to make synthetic opioids and we are dealing with a lot of this in Salt Lake right now,” Caldwell said.

Throughout Utah, fentanyl-related overdose deaths are on the rise, and 2016 saw the highest number of deaths from the drug since 2000, when the Utah Department of Health began tracking overdose deaths.

Further, the drug can be absorbed through the skin, allowing it to enter a person’s body without the typical illicit drug ingestion methods such as smoking, snorting or injecting.

It is estimated that only 2 milligrams of the pure drug can be lethal. However, inconsistent mixing or manufacture of the drug means that emergency responders can come into contact with higher concentrations of the drug.

“It is 50-100 times stronger than heroin,” Caldwell said.

That poses serious risks to officers, first responders and the public.

On Tuesday, the Civil Support Team worked with Washington County agencies to address the various issues related to the drug, including training in the National Guard’s onsite mobile laboratory, where the team demonstrated testing techniques to analyze different forms of the drug that police may encounter out in the field.

However, there is no way to know what the concentration is until it goes to the lab, but physical contact with the drug could have occurred well before then, Caldwell said.

In the training scenario police entered a residence to serve a search warrant and were confronted with a fentanyl lab that was being operated out of the home.

More than 50 first responders, including police, fire and EMS train with the Utah National Guard’s 85th WMD Civil Support Team, St. George, Utah, March 20, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

To deal with all of the elements police may encounter, including contamination, risks to the public, and other aspects related to the storage and illicit manufacture of the drug, local teams worked through the scenario as if it was a real-life situation, guided by the team.

“This is a great opportunity for us to work together with our interagency partners to deal with this threat, fentanyl, and other threats in the community,” Caldwell said.

This exercise is an annual multi-agency exercise, and was originally developed as a way to foster a working relationship between local responders and the nearest WMD-CST located in Salt Lake City.

The 85th is a 19-member team and one of 57 teams throughout the country. They were joined by another National Guard team from Maine that came to to participate in Tuesday’s drill.

Also participating were more than 30 officers, detectives and agents in addition to multiple firefighters and paramedics from various departments throughout Washington County.

Emergency management is all in the planning

In the U.S., it is primarily the local government’s responsibility to respond to an emergency, and when faced with these threats, emergency first responders are employed, including fire, police, emergency medical services, dispatch systems and operations centers.

When local resources become overwhelmed during an event, or if advanced technical capabilities not available in the local area are needed, additional support can be requested through mutual aid agreements with neighboring communities, as well as supplemental support from county and state emergency management systems – which include the National Guard.

Utah National Guard’s 85th WMD Civil Support Team conducts training with first responders from Washington County Tuesday, St. George, Utah, March 20, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

WMD Civil Support Teams were established in 1998 by President Bill Clinton and are able to deploy rapidly, assist local first-responders in determining the nature of an attack, provide medical and technical advice and pave the way for the identification and arrival of state and federal military response aid.

Each team consists of 19 highly skilled, full-time National Guard members who are federally trained and exercised.

Further, they are the first military responders on the ground when a large-scale disaster strikes. Saving lives and preventing human suffering is the number one priority of the unit, and second is reducing significant damage to property.

Tuesday’s drill reflected the relationship between the military and first responders and the cooperation between the agencies when additional resources, training and experience are needed.

“The best part of what we do is the relationships that we build here,” Caldwell said.

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  • aaron March 21, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    This is a state waste of resources, seems like a bit of overkill if you ask me.

  • Jeremiah March 21, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    People see this as a waste of time and money until disaster strikes and these services are needed.
    I for one am glad there are groups training for these problems that may happen.

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