Looking like they just stepped out of a science fiction movie in their orange hazmat suits, soldiers and airmen collected samples of mystery chemicals found in a makeshift lab in the gymnasium of Scott Middle School.
A paintbrush and a collection of travel brochures promoting various state attractions sat on a table next to glass beakers filled with orange, yellow and clear liquids.
The Louisiana National Guard 62nd Civil Support Team conducted training exercises Tuesday and Wednesday at the school to test readiness against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.
The team — on call to help local authorities in the event of a domestic terrorism incident — collected samples of chemicals found at the school, trying to identify if they were hazardous.
In the mock scenario Wednesday, two of the local first responders were hospitalized and one later died, an indication the team was dealing with a lethal agent.
“The primary mission is to identify unknown hazards,” said Maj. William Saint, commander of the 62nd Civil Support Team. “Our local and statewide first responders are very well trained and equipped. There are just some things that exceed their capability. So we identify those unknown hazards, we assess the situation to provide that information to the incident commander so they can make decisions.”
The 22-member Civil Support Team, which includes scientists, communication specialists and decontamination experts, is stationed in Carville, just south of Baton Rouge.
The team travels with a large arsenal of trucks packed with equipment. That arsenal includes a Mobile Analytical Laboratory Suite — the only one of its kind in the state — to test for chemical weapons and biological agents.
“We have the ability to conduct scientific research and testing inside that laboratory,” Saint said. “Essentially, what the state crime lab has, and the state hazardous materials lab has, in a bench-top setting we have in a compact system that’s mobile.”
A nuclear medical science officer and a chemical biological science officer travel with the team to determine how to stop a chemical process if it’s occurring and when to give the all-clear.
The chemical biological science officer holds doctorate degrees in cellular and molecular biology.
This week, the team trained with Lafayette and Scott fire departments. The exercise was a pre-test for the Civil Support Team’s recertification in November. The team must be recertified every 18 months.
The Civil Support Team will be returning to the Acadiana area in August for joint training with the Lafayette Fire Department.
“Ever since Katrina, I think we’ve learned that overpreparation is better than underpreparation. For Mardi Gras, for Jazz Fest, for the Sugar Bowl, any of those major special events where you have lots of civilian population that could potentially be affected, we’re going to be there in a standby capacity,” Saint said. “That’s when you won’t see all of (our equipment); you’ll see a bunch of guys that look like cops. We’re wearing khaki-type pants and a black polo shirt and we’ve got a radio piece in our ear. You don’t notice that we’re there, but we are there. ”