Terrorizing Rabbits: Washington National Guard trains for newest biological threat at Fircrest school

By J.M. Simpson on August 19, 2014

The two soldiers from the North Dakota National Guard crinkled in their black hazardous materials suits as they walked through the darkened and deserted elementary school.

Movements were constricted; communication muffled.

Condensation streaked their masks reducing visibility.

At times, tempers got short.

After two hours of searching, the soldiers emerged from the building and headed back to their command post.

They had not found the bioweapon.

The simulated attack began at 7:35 a.m. when the fire alarm system at Wainwright Elementary School in Fircrest was activated.

Approximately 300 faculty and students exited the building and moved to areas of accountability. While in these areas, the school's sprinkler system inexplicably activated, drenching everyone.

When the school's janitor turned the sprinklers off, he noticed that someone had put a timer on the system with a hose running out of the shed and attached to one of the sprinklers.

Then things got worse.

At 7:45 a.m., multiple news agencies received an email from an unknown person or agency claiming credit for the biological attack on Wainwright.

The terrorist(s) claimed that the food and water at the school had been targeted and that the sprinkler system had been activated to spray students and faculty with a biological weapon of mass destruction.

The message ended by saying there would be more attacks.

"A biological attack is the toughest to deal with; you have to first find out what it is before you can deal with it," commented Maj. Jim Jack, the deputy commander of the Washington National Guard's 10th Civil Support Team.

"And in this scenario the terrorists have used a weapon that may be the next big bioweapon."

The news agencies contacted the police and fire departments. Both arrived on scene.

Fire personnel determined the fire alarm had been manually activated and began to investigate the report of the use of a bioweapon. In short order, decontamination assets were requested.

So too are the FBI, the Departments of Health and Ecology and the Washington National Guard's Civil Support Team, or CST.

The unit supports civil authorities at domestic incident sites involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives (CBRNE).

The team provides identification and assessment of hazards, advice to civil authorities and facilitates the arrival of follow-on military forces during emergencies and incidents of weapons of mass destruction terrorism.

>>> A member of North Dakota's National Guard's 81st Civil Support Team monitors for a chemical, radiological or biological element during a training exercise. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

Joining the 10th CST at Wainwright Elementary Aug. 18 in Fircrest for this simulated multi-CST exercise were soldiers assigned to the 81st CST from North Dakota, the 82nd CST from South Dakota and the 102nd CST from Oregon.

After setting up an operations center, the CSTs comprised of about 80 soldiers quickly began to eliminate the known variables in an attempt to zero in on the biological agent.

>>> Water was the source of the attack, and soldiers from the North Dakota's 81st Civil Support Team search a kitchen sink. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

The students and faculty were run through a decontamination process and found to be safe.  Parents were notified and assured that their children were not contaminated.

School officials were questioned about who had been in and out of the school over the past several weeks.

One item of interest that emerged was that about 30 students had been sick before the attack, and it was noted that the students came from certain areas of the school.

In each area there was a water source.

With instructions that a biological dispersal device had been used that may involve water, CSTs from North Dakota's 81st CST and Oregon's 102nd CST suited up.

The soldiers searched the exterior and interior of the school.  They moved deliberately; they used equipment to measure for radiation and gas; they took hundreds of pictures.

What they didn't know was what exactly the bioweapon was and how it had been dispersed.  All they knew is that water played a role.

The weapon brings to mind an image of a bunny rabbit.

Tularemia, sometimes referred to as rabbit fever, was the weapon.  It can be transferred through physical contact, the air or through water sources.

If untreated, the disease results in death.

>>> Working in the hot and muffled world of a hazardous material suit led to the build-up of sweat and condensation. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

In a recently published report, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated that tularemia has been used as a bioweapon in other countries.

"Despite its importance for both public health and biodefense," said Geoffrey Feld at the most recent annual Biophysical Society Meeting, "tularensis pathogenesis isn't entirely understood, nor do we fully understand how the organism persists in the environment.

As the soldiers from the 81st CST began their search through the school, they focused on drinking foundations, sinks and other water sources.

The dispersal systems - a water foundation, a spray bottle and a sink in a classroom - were in the open.

Like a plastic spray bottle.

"The weapon is in the water; the spray bottle is used to clean the tables where the children sit to eat their breakfast; that's how the children become infected," pointed out Lt. Col. Scott Humphrey, the 10th CST's commander.

For the better part of two hours they searched the school's kitchen, classrooms and gymnasium.

Much, much later they found the dispersal systems.

"How operations are conducted can vary from state to state," continued Humphrey.

"The week long training we are involved in gives us the chance to train each other while challenging our skill sets. We only get better."