Missouri National Guardsmen from the 7th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team recetly won the technical and overall competitions at the 2012 National HAZMAT Challenge in Los Alamos, N.M. Pictured are, from left, Sgt. James Kindell, Capt. Richard Sambolin, Sgt. 1st Class Juan Gallego and Staff Sgt. Dale Kaiser.
By Matthew J. Wilson
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - The survey section from the Missouri National Guard's 7th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team recently won the technical and overall competitions at the 2012 National HAZMAT Challenge.
The section, led by Capt. Richard Sambolin, who lives in Waynesville, represented the Missouri first-responder community in the 16th annual event.
"It gives credence to the training that we do here in Missouri," Sambolin said of the team's success. "Everything that we do here throughout the year prepared us to meet this challenge."
Rounding out the team that bested 11 other squads was Sgt. 1st Class Juan Gallego, who lives in Eldon, Staff Sgt. Dale Kaiser, who lives in Jamestown, and Sgt. James Kindell, of Dixon.
"It was a pleasure to represent the Missouri National Guard at the event," Gallego said. "The training was invaluable and our team chemistry improved greatly."
Also representing the Missouri National Guard and 7th Civil Support Team at the event were Staff Sgt. Brian Harvey, who lives in Jefferson City, and Staff Sgt. Anthony Klenke, who lives in Iberia. Harvey and Klenke competed on a composite team, which included two additional members of other Hazmat teams, named 'Team Missile'. The composite team earned the challenge's sportsmanship trophy as voted by the participants, vendors and evaluators.
"It was a great honor to be on the composite team and earn the sportsmanship trophy," Harvey said. "It was great to go down to New Mexico and be able to work with firefighters from the civilian side of employment. They got to learn how we operate and we saw how they operate on the civilian side."
Harvey said the advantage of he and Klenke competing on the composite team was it allowed all six Guardsmen to compete in everything.
"We both volunteered and decided we'd work with some different people," he said. "All of us got to do all of the events and learn something. There wasn't anybody who had to sit out for any event."
The 7th Civil Support Team, based at Cooper Armory Jefferson City, is a 22-person active Guard team, made up of both Army and Air National Guardsmen. Its mission is to assess suspected or known terrorist threats, advise civilian authorities of appropriate responses, and assist local emergency responders with follow-on forces in incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive weapons of mass destruction.
The Guardsmen were the only military team in the competitive field that included teams from throughout New Mexico - Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Lab, Las Cruces Fire Department, Farmington Fire Department, Los Alamos Fire Department, Clovis Fire Department, Gallup Fire Department and the Santa Fe Fire Department - and the nation - Edmond, Okla., Fire Department.
The National HAZMAT Challenge is an annual training event allowing participants a chance to network with one another, practice technical skills, and learn new HAZMAT techniques under realistic conditions in a safe environment.
The competition was carried out over the course of three days. The first two days decided who would win the technical portion of the challenge.
Competitors had to rely on their training to go through eight different scenarios - four each day - and conquer a problem in a timed event. Teams were graded on accuracy by evaluators and bonus points were given for speedy results.
"The clock is ticking the minute they read the scenario to you," Sambolin said.
Scenarios dealt with a rolling meth lab in a Honda civic, a highly pressurized railroad tanker that was leaking, a leaking diesel fuel tank on a big rig, leaking pipes, operating in confined space and proper decontamination. Old cars, trucks, tankers and rail cars were used in some of the props to mimic real-life hazardous material situations.
The scenarios often forced competitors to don level A protective gear, which is the equivalent of carrying an extra 100 pounds of equipment while wearing a thick trash bag, four times each day. Sambolin said it reinforced to his Guardsmen why they work so hard to stay in shape and build endurance using their equipment.
"We were 7,000 feet closer to the sun in New Mexico in summertime - it was challenging," he said. "Given the nature of the game we were playing, it was high stakes for us and you have so much adrenaline going through you, you don't even realize. You just want to excel, and you do."
One of the scenarios involved three teams working together and each tackling one portion of the event. One called for the Guard members to borrow and use traditional firefighter gear, which is something they don't normally operate with.
Harvey said some of the events took the Guardsmen out of their normal comfort zone.
"We were able to do some stuff we wouldn't normally be called out on," he said. "As far as what we do as a civil support team, we don't necessarily deal with chlorine tanks and rail cars. We mostly concentrate on sampling, radiation surveys and weapons of mass destruction events."
We saw some different standard operating procedures from ours and we might incorporate some things like that. It was good to see how people did things differently."
The third day consist of eight additional events ran as an obstacle course. The scores from all three days were added together to determine the overall champion.
Sambolin said there were all kinds of variations in each obstacle that included breaking up a block of ice to retrieve an item and using a sling shot to knockdown targets. In some events, two members of the team would perform the first half the task and the other two members of the team would finish.
"The last day is all about teamwork," Sambolin said.
Although it was a clean sweep in the competitions for the 7th Civil Support Team, Sambolin was modest about the accomplishment, knowing that the difference in victory might have only been a few seconds here or there.
"But in the end, we were the best among those who competed," he said.
Along with the morale boost, Sambolin said the training value of competing in the event was enormous.
"What I liked about it is the training that they provided there," he said. "The eight straining scenarios involve what we do here. There is an after action review after each event and that's where you get the real learning, from the people who set up the event. That way you walk away with not only knowing the way you saw to solve the problem, but three other ways."
Sambolin said the team plans to return to New Mexico next year to defend its titles.
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Members of the Missouri National Guard's 7th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team survey section attempt to stop leaks during the 2012 National HAZMAT Challenge in Los Alamos, N.M. The team from Missouri won the overall and technical portions of the 16th annual compeititon.