NOME, Alaska –
Approximately 530 miles northwest of Anchorage, two survey team members from the Alaska National Guard’s 103rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team monitor handheld detectors scanning for radiation and nerve, blister, and blood agents as they prepare to enter a notional biological weapons lab at the Nome Fire Training Center as part of Exercise ORCA 2023.
ORCA is a biennial exercise designed to maintain readiness, validate response procedures, and collaborate with community first response agencies across the state. This year’s exercise took place in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Nome, and Kotzebue, June 12-15.
Brightly colored, full-body suits and Federal Bureau of Investigation field jackets might be out of place to spectators in the Bering Sea's Norton Sound community, but they are an essential part of training for the 103rd WMD-CST and FBI’s hazardous evidence response team.
“When we got here, we immediately grounded our gear and were ready to go,” said Warrant Officer Candidate Fabiana Kirtley, a 103rd WMD-CST survey team chief, explaining how a strike team flyaway package operates. “Our mission was to respond, mitigate and assess the hazard.”
After receiving same-day notification of a potential notional hazard, the Guardsmen and their emergency response reconnaissance vehicle rapidly deployed from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Nome via an Alaska Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster III from the 176th Wing’s 144th Airlift Squadron.
Members of FBI Anchorage and Homeland Security Investigation accompanied the CST team to the scene, a small, confined area on the second floor of a dark, dilapidated building, and after conducting a battery of tests, revealed Botulism toxin and Bacillus anthracis, both ingredients in manufacturing biological weapons.
Kirtley explained that the initial site characterization gave a clear indication of what they were dealing with, which made the second entry and operating their hand-held detection equipment easier.
“If the antigen for the specific bacteria is present it creates and antigen to antibody connection and creates two lines almost like what you would see in a COVID or pregnancy test,” said Kirtley. “We complete the HHA three times to rule out false positives and negatives.”
In a real-world response, the samples from the field would likely be mailed back to the state lab in Anchorage for further testing and verification.
“The state lab gave us a category A sampling kit and we were able to practice packing samples to ship,” said Kirtley. “Air loading and sampling are all perishable tasks, and we need to re-create and repeat basic tasks to effectively respond to communities within our state.”
ORCA 23 brought a range of agencies together including 12 National Guard units from Alaska, Washington, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kansas, Ohio, Hawaii, and Kentucky, eight local and state entities, three federal agencies, and various community partners.
Ohio National Guard Lt. Col. Katie Enochs, commander of the 52nd CST, explained that her team, operating in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough, integrated quickly and effectively with other military and civilian response teams.
“We were able to work together as a team and do joint entry,” said Enochs. “That is what is really great about doing these large-scale training exercises is working with those teammates.”
Enochs explained that while all CST members complete the same two-month course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, which focuses on providing the skills and knowledge required to respond to a WMD incident, there are still strategies and standard operating procedures across the CST units that are different.
“Learning the nuances of on-the-scene operations was something new to pick up and being able to take back best practices whether another state had a better set up for their [decontamination process] or we were able to walk away with just a different perspective and outlook on how we conduct our operations,” she said.
In addition to refining interagency coordination during the multi-agency chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive exercise, Enochs said that bonding together through the 36-hour scenario benefited her team.
Kirtley affirmed that relationships built during the exercise are a vital part of real-world response.
“The training opportunity here in Nome gave us the opportunity to create those connections with personnel who are on site in these remote areas,” said Kirtley. “Every time we work with the local fire department and first responders, we enhance our response capabilities.”
The team in Nome was originally planning to travel to Kotzebue for following training; however, poor flying weather cancelled the event.
National Guard CST units stood up in 1998 to deploy rapidly to assist a local incident commander in determining the nature and extent of a WMD attack or incident, provide expert technical advice on CBRNE response operations, and help identify and support the arrival of follow-on state and federal military response assets.
Exercise ORCA 2025 is slated to take place in Juneau.