The possibility of terrorists using chemical, biological, and/or other hazardous materials in an attack is an ever-growing and international concern. When the United Kingdom laid out its anti-terrorism policies last spring, it acknowledged that advances in technology could lead to more lethal chemical, biological, and radiological attacks; and in August, India’s National Disaster Management Authority issued a response report in the event that terrorists use chemical-warfare agents in future attacks against that country.
In the United States, the federal government – as well as such nonpartisan institutions as the Henry L. Stimson Center – continue to make advances in research and analysis, and to pursue preventive measures. Dr. Amy Smithson, director of the Stimson Center’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project, found that reports that terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda have been investigating the possibility of using chemical and biological weapons are accurate. “The terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden may well have acquired a rudimentary chemical weapons capability,” she wrote.
A Grim Reminder of Toxic Dangers That this past March marked the fourteenth anniversary of the Sarin subway attack in Tokyo makes Smithson’s comment even more relevant. In 1995, members of the terrorist organization Aum Shinrikyo released liquid Sarin on Tokyo’s Chiyoda, Marunouchi, and Hibiya subway lines, killing twelve persons and exposing thousands of others to the toxic nerve agent.
The attack on the Tokyo subway did more than shock the United States; it also inspired action. The Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) cites the Sarin subway attacks as the catalyst for the center’s creation. Soon after the attack in Tokyo, requests for toxic-agent training came from local safety officials up the chain of command to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Public safety officials from New York requested training at the Chemical Defense Training Facility (CDTF) at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, which was then the home of the U.S. Army Chemical School. The first civilian emergency responders finished from CDTF later that year, and continued to do so until 1998, when the CDTF closed and the CDP was established in its place.
Since its inception, the CDP has been training first responders from small towns to big cities, and even from some cities overseas. The CDP is currently under the authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a major branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which covers the bill for all state, local, and tribal emergency responders who participate in the CDP training in Anniston. Attendees coming from other federal agencies, private-sector organizations, and international partners have to pay their own way.
The CDP offers 42 courses addressing such topics as WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) Response Training and Crime-Scene Management, Managing Civil Actions in Threat Incidents (MCATI), Incident Command, Healthcare, and Radiology. With that range of choices it should be no surprise that the CDP has trained students in Emergency Management, Emergency Medical Services, Fire Service, Hazardous Materials, Healthcare, Law Enforcement, Public Health, Public Safety Communications, Public Works, Governmental Administrative, and other professions. The multi-disciplinary concept is a reflection of the reality of emergency and disaster situations, when emergency providers from all divisions and different units respond together.
High-Level Partnerships for Cutting-Edge Realism With partners such as the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Army’s Research, Development, and Engineering Command, the CDP strives to keep its courses cutting-edge. CDP Deputy Superintendent Michael King says that one of the CDP’s primary goals is to provide “even greater realism in the hands-on aspect of the training we provide.”
One area in which the CDP excels at real-life training is in its Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological (COBRA) training courses. According to DHS, the Center’s Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological Training Facility (COBRATF) is the only toxic-chemical training facility of its kind in the United States. Dedicated to giving first responders the opportunity to experience a COBRA disaster in a controlled environment, the es expose – literally and figuratively – willing and wanting civilian responders to serious toxins.
The COBRATF courses – e.g., the WMD Technical Emergency Response Training course – offer training that features an overview of the terrorist threat as well as a list of the most likely targets and the types of hazards that may be used in a WMD incident. The course also includes hands-on training in decontamination, mass-casualty triage, surveying and monitoring, and the recognition of explosive devices. Realistic mockups of clandestine labs enable responders to recognize paraphernalia and equipment that might indicate a chemical or biological threat, including such toxins as Sarin, Anthrax, Ricin, and various infectious diseases. Mock methamphetamine laboratories also are used for training purposes.
The 32-hour course ends with engaging the chemical agents GB and VX. These noxious substances are deadly nerve agents, but – as prescribed by the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention – are allowed to be used for defensive training in a controlled environment.
Knowledge + Experience = Confidence The rationale for exposing civilian personnel – properly outfitted with gas masks and protective clothing, it should be emphasized – to live agents is straightforward enough. Through increased knowledge, fear is decreased. The CDP cites findings by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the Army Research Laboratory that support the use of infectious agents as the surest if not only method of providing high levels of confidence in equipment, procedures, and – of particular importance – the individual student. The Institute of Research reports that “Measures of confidence were clearly higher for subjects trained with toxic agents than for subjects without such training.”
There is no better teacher than experience. As Robert Burns of the Office of the Attending Physician of the U.S. Congress has pointed out, “If you have not trained in live agent, you are not prepared for a WMD incident.” In addition to building self-assurance in an individual’s personal and operational skills and fine-tuning operational procedures, the CDP has found that training with VX and GB creates “responder veterans” – who then share their own experiences and education with other emergency responders, resulting in a ripple effect of knowledge and security.
It is the mission of the CDP not only toentify, develop, test, and deliver effective training to state, local, and tribal emergency-response providers but also to direct some of that training at the performance, management, and planning levels. The access to current information and commitment to real-life teachable scenarios is something the CDP takes seriously as it strives for a total Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) response. “There is a lot of interest and energy by the various response agencies to integrate training of all levels of response, because that is how an actual response will take place,” says King. “The military calls this ‘Train as you fight.’ For us it is ‘Train as you will respond.'”
That brief mission summary has proved to be extremely successful. As of late September, 500,000 students –114,000 of them last year alone – will have passed the CDP’s tests. “This milestone is particularly noteworthy,” King said, “considering [that] the original expectation and infrastructure of the CDP was based on training about 10,000 students annually.” With its intense instruction and gratifying results, the CDP itself inspires a high degree of confidence in the training it offers.
Kate Rosenblatt is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. She has a background in education reform, communications, and business development, and has written for a number of publications on a broad range of subjects ranging from finance to fashion to public safety and related topics.