by Sgt. Michaela C.P. Granger, 116th Public Affairs Detachment
The North Dakota National Guard’s 81st Civil Support Team (CST) is a homeland defense unit comprised of 22 Soldiers and Airmen specializing in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) analysis for responding to incidents across the state, region, and nation. The mission of the 81st CST is to identify CBRN incidents, counter weapons of mass destruction, assist during natural disasters, and to protect the people of N.D. and the nation. Federal, state, local, and civil agencies can turn to the unit for support in any of the areas they specialize in. They undergo hundreds of hours of training every year to prepare themselves to respond to emergencies.
In March the first cases of the COVID-19 were confirmed in North Dakota. During early state-wide testing missions the N.D. Department of Health’s (NDDoH) Microbiology Lab struggled to handle the increasing testing needs of the state, averaging less than 200 COVID-19 tests processed per day. However, over the years the CST cultivated a working relationship with the NDDoH, which made for an easier response to COVID-19.
“We’ve known these people for several years and we’ve built those relationships. It’s easy to step in and work side-by-side with them because we’ve already done it in many situations.” - Lt. Col. Pat Flanagan, Commander of the 81st CST.
The N.D. National Guard embedded Soldiers in the laboratory to assist their personnel. The 81st CST trained new laboratory technicians, increasing the lab’s capacity to process from 200 to nearly 5,000 tests per day. The CST worked with the Governor’s office to develop a predictability model, helping to create strategies combating COVID-19 as the impact grew. This included a plan for weekly testing of employees and residents of the state’s long term care facilities. Working with their partners in the N.D. Department of Emergency Services (NDDES), the 81st CST also helped to develop the presidential declaration ensuring North Dakota received the federal funding necessary to support the state’s countermeasures to the COVID-19 outbreak.
In April, the 81st CST was the first team called out to the pilot mass testing site in Amidon, North Dakota. “We had no idea what to expect or what the limitations of the pilot site would be. The first several testing sites used paper forms to process the demographic information collected from the public. The initial structure and equipment of the first sites, along with challenges of dealing with unpredictable spring weather, complicated the process to collect samples and relay the necessary information to the state laboratory,” said Flanagan.
As the mission grew, other units were activated to support the mobile testing missions. Led by the 81st CST, the sites evolved over the next three months, moving to an electronic format to collect information, applying the right amount of personnel to each lane of cars to ensure smooth progression, and making sure the testing area was adequate so overflow would not obstruct traffic and cause safety hazards. Now, instead of taking roughly six hours to test around 200 people, those numbers can be reached within an hour. The CST’s goal was to assist in setting the state up for success by establishing efficient operating procedures to allow for local agencies to take over the set up and the management of the sites in the future.
According to Capt. Laura Schmidt, 81st CST member, “hundreds of hours of training each year made us ready to respond to emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. The support we provide sets up other state agencies for success, strengthening the state’s knowledge and resources with the expertise and training of the 81st CST. Although COVID-19 is not a biological weapon, it is a biological disease, and our specialty in handling biological substances makes us efficient in collecting and handling testing samples. Our capabilities were essential in the initial stages of developing how testing sites were run.”
For Capt. Schmidt, the work is rewarding and gratifying. Being able to interact with Soldiers from other units and the public is one of the best parts of her job as a member of the CST. With long hours and a lot of time spent away from family, it’s not an easy job. However, she is proud to wear the N.D. National Guard patch and the U.S. Army uniform.
The distinct capabilities of the 81st CST made them ideal candidates to be the first unit activated for the state’s response against the COVID-19 pandemic. Lt. Col. Flanagan credits the effectiveness of the unit to the duality of the skills that each member brings to the team and to the understanding of the unit’s capabilities by the leadership of the N.D. National Guard.
“I think the great thing about our civil support team is we’ve had long term support from our senior leaders in the state and they understand what our mission is and what the capabilities of all the people on the team are. They trust us to do our job and it’s humbling we’ve been given the opportunity to do this.” - Lt. Col. Flanagan
With Lt. Col. Flanagan’s background as an epidemiologist for the state, he understands the process of diseases very well. Maj. Waylon Tomac, 81st CST deputy commander, a former science officer, has a detailed background in healthcare. The current science officer, 1st Lt. Thomas Hanson, has a similar background.
The 81st CST is unique because the extra skills and knowledge of the three former science officers enhance the training and skillsets of the other 19 Soldiers and Airmen in the unit. The CST has proven to be a great asset to the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is why we wear the uniform,” said Lt. Col. Flanagan. The 81st CST is a highly trained, specialized unit that is ready to serve their state and nation when called upon.