Darren McCollester
Members of the 1st Civil Support Team-Weapons of Mass Destruction are tested for radiation and chemical substances on June 21 during a mock terrorism drill at Fort Devens, Mass.
By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 6/29/2005 6:21:46 PM ET 2005-06-29T22:21:46

Lt. Col. Eric Furey’s nightmares are his day job.

Since 1999, Furey and the Massachusetts National Guard team he commands have been dedicated to responding to potential domestic attacks involving chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in the Boston area.

The sight of the 1st Civil Support Team-Weapons of Mass Destruction charging through traffic in a convoy of navy blue trucks and trailers has turned many heads over the years.

“We get a lot of funny looks,” said Furey, a broad-shouldered man with close-cropped hair. “We look a little like the guys who showed up to deal with ET, so we make it a point not to turn our sirens on unless it’s the real thing.”

The real thing is something most people don’t want to contemplate. But since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has increased the role of the military on domestic soil.

Since the 1st CST and a sister unit in New York were founded in the late 1990s, 53 more teams have been created across the nation. By the end of 2006, every state plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands will have a team primed to race to the scene of an unfolding disaster and deliver a verdict on the type of weapon and the scope of the devastation that might be in play. The cost: about $214 million a year.

Girding for the Fourth
True to its low-profile mission, the1st CST’s headquarters is a brick warehouse nestled behind a sedate neighborhood of Wellesley, a prosperous suburb west of Boston. On a recent morning, the team’s main focus was an event just days away: the annual Fourth of July celebrations held on the banks of the Charles River, featuring fireworks and a concert by the Boston Pops orchestra that draws a half-million people and is broadcast live nationally by CBS. Security for the event has been tight since 9/11, and Furey’s team has been there every year, quietly monitoring the more visible phalanxes of police, firefighters and other first responders spread among the crowd.

This year, Furey said, he’s won a small victory: permission to deploy his team farther away from the concert.

“We were too close to the event in past years. ... We argued that, if something happens, we need to be alive to do our jobs,” Furey said. “So now we’ll be back a bit from the stage in a place where we can move in at the right time.”

In Boston, a lot of practice
All of Boston's emergency services — police, fire and EMTs — deploy that day with tragedy in mind. Spread on a table at CST headquarters was a map of that section of Boston, and Furey pointed to the streets running perpendicular fromthe riverfront scene of the concert. “Boston Fire will deploy on all these streets here,” he said. “They know if something happens, these are the channels that people will rush into heading for Mass General,” Boston’s largest hospital. “The fire department will make sure no one arrives at the hospital without getting wet, which is very important in a chemical incident.”

Such planning may surprise the public, but since 9/11, police and fire departments increasingly regard such preparations as routine. And agencies in the Boston area have had a lot of practice in the past calendar year, beginning with the Democratic National Convention, the Fourth of July, the Boston Marathon, baseball playoffs and a World Series for the Red Sox, and a successful NFL championship by the New England Patriots.

“Every one of these are events we have to worry about,” Furey said. “We’re there, and mostly the public doesn’t see it, but that’s as it should be.”

Drilling and planning
On this morning, Furey had mobilized his team for a drill. The scenario was this: For weeks federal and state authorities had been watching an apartment where five men were believed to be working on a “dirty bomb,” a radiation-packed device that is too primitive to set off a nuclear explosion but could spread deadly radioactive material over an open area like Boston’s riverside band shell.

The 1st CST team was suited up in dark-blue Gore-Tex jumpsuits and “tac vests” bristling with radios, telephones and other communications gear. Team members also carried an array of meters and scanners — devices to detect radiation, nerve gas and blister agents, toxic industrial chemicals and eight deadly biological agents.

They gathered around a conference table where Furey briefed them on what was known about the scenario and how they would respond. At 6:38 a.m. that morning, he said, he received a call from the Massachusetts State Police informing him that an arrest warrant was about to be served on an apartment, located at Fort Devens, a down-sized Army base checkered with dilapidated former barracks. Informants said the suspects appeared to be building some kind of weapon, and the state police’s Special Tactical Operations, or STOP, team was already on site and ready to move in for the arrests. “Our job will be to identify what’s in there and to provide decontamination,” Furey said.

Filling holes
The unit drove northwest through thick morning traffic, drawing predictable stares from Boston commuters. Arriving on the scene, they were briefed by a STOP officer, Trooper John Suyemoto, who told them that five men were thought to be inside the apartment and that they had been observed spraying an undetermined substance from fire extinguishers. The suspects were described as two Americans, two Saudi nationals and a French national. Suyemoto asked for help decontaminating his shock troops if necessary, and in identifying whatever it was the suspects had in the building.

“We need your help since our detection equipment is state of the art for 1975,” he said, asking Furey if his officers could borrow handheld monitors for the initial assault.

Although Furey's unit has been in existence for five years, he said this was the first time it had worked with STOP, the most likely agency to be involved in a “kick-down-the-doors” arrest of this kind.

“This is valuable for us, and we’re already seeing some holes that need plugging,” he said.

Darren McCollester
A Massachusetts State Police unit prepares to enter a building during the mock drill at Fort Devens.
Later, after the state troopers had battled their way inside to arrest the suspects, the troopers realized belatedly that they would have to provide security cover for the CST when it entered the apartment to try to identify any dangerous substances inside. Furey's team must work unarmed because of restrictions on the use of the military on U.S. soil.

"This is why we do these drills,” he said.  “It’s better to find this stuff out now.”

Another hole became painfully obvious after the STOP raid was over. The CST had, as requested, set up a decontamination station, and state troopers streamed toward the shower, entering two by two and then stripping off Kevlar, gas masks, jumpsuits, gloves and other gear. The process took more than an hour, by which time the last in line would have received a terrible dose of radiation had a radioactive substance actually been inside the apartment.

Darren McCollester
A Civil Support Team member tests for radiation and chemical substances during the drill at Fort Devens.
“In a real incident the fire department would have its mass decontamination stations set up, so this wouldn’t happen,” Furey said.

Making progress
As improvised as some of the drill seemed, it is an enormous leap forward from the days prior to 9/11.

In the 1990s, some experts had argued that the United States had embraced the misguided notion that the collapse of the Soviet Union had diminished the threat of an attack on the United States. But many terrorism experts said just the opposite was true — that threats from chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons had actually increased.

“Not only had tons of lethal material suddenly been thrown into limbo by the USSR’s disappearance,” said Juliette Kayyem, who heads counterterrorism studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “but we also lost the operational logic of the Cold War.” That logic — mutually assured destruction, or MAD — rested on the notion that no nuclear state would attack another if it knew the other would, in turn, rain nuclear death down upon its population.

The 9/11 attacks, blamed on a terrorist network rather than a country, changed the government's attitude.

In many ways, the mission of Furey’s team — and the 54 others like it around the United States — begins with “sorry.”

“We’re not really preventive; we are a worst-case operation,” he said. “But we can’t survive on wishful thinking. There are other people whose job it is to prevent attacks. Ours is to make sure that if there ever is one, we know just what it is and how to react to save as many lives as possible.”

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