National Guard unit ready to respond to terror strike

Sunday, October 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ If a terrorist attack occurs in Oklahoma, an elite unit of the Oklahoma Army National Guard is ready to respond, according to state emergency preparedness officials.

Maj. Kevin Staring, commander of the 63rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, said the 22 full-time members of his unit are ready to respond to any type of attack _ nuclear, biological or chemical.

``People are scared right now with all of the anthrax reports,'' Staring said. ``We'll offer whatever assistance local authorities need to deal with the circumstances.''

The team, based at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, won't be certified by the U.S. Department of Defense until next year. Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Civil Emergency Management Department, said the state is fortunate the team is close to completing its training.

``As far as I'm concerned, this unit is an active resource that we would definitely put to work if such an attack occurred here,'' Ashwood said.

The team has a response radius of 250 driving miles and could also fly to another state.

``Our response has to be immediate to deal with these types of threats,'' Staring said.

Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks highlight the need for all communities to be adequately prepared.

``Terrorists can strike anywhere,'' said Carson, who was recently appointed to a homeland security task force in Washington, D.C. ``Only about a third of the cities in the U.S. and a few states actually have response plans in place.

``This assignment is tailor-made for the National Guard because they're already on the scene. They're part of the communities.''

Teams receive federal funding, equipment, training and evaluation through the U.S. Departments of Defense, Justice and Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they are under the control of state governments.

So far, only six of the initial 10 _ from Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Texas and Washington _ have completed all 600 hours of training required for Pentagon certification.

Oklahoma's unit is ''98 percent'' done with its training and will face a final scenario challenge in February before it receives certification, Staring said.

The challenge, which will be set up at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, likely will be a mock biological attack, he said.

As if the attack were real, the unit will respond to the scene and assist local authorities in identifying the threat _ using a mobile lab _ and containing it, Staring said.

``It's something we could definitely face in the future,'' he said.

The Tulsa and Oklahoma City fire departments have skilled hazardous materials units that already respond to biological threats, Ashwood said. But the National Guard team will be useful in smaller towns that do not have resources to deal with a terrorist attack.

``We want everyone to be able to handle such an attack,'' Ashwood said. ``We've seen in the past few weeks that you never know what's going to happen, but we have to try to be prepared.''