Nation Has Few WMD Response Teams in Place
GALLAGHER, W. Va. — The training scenario the Marines encountered on a crisp spring morning was this: Terrorists traveling in a van through a highway tunnel sprayed nerve gas into the air. Motorists behind them, suffering from the effects, lost control of their vehicles and created two large pileups.
The chemical biological incident response force (CBIRF), a unit of more than 400 Marines and Navy personnel, had the task of rescuing the victims in a contaminated area, or hot zone, where the exact nature of the threat was still unknown.
The training exercise, held in an abandoned tunnel in the Allegheny Mountains, is one of many the unit carries out each year to prepare for the aftermath of an attack.
The Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Defense spend a good deal of time and resources to prevent a terrorist attack. But what happens if their efforts fall short and a plot succeeds? Is the nation any better prepared to respond than it was on 9/11?
If a weapon of mass destruction is ever employed in the United States, the CBIRF team will be one of the nation’s few resources it can call upon.
CBIRF officers told National Defense that they are the only unit capable of extracting victims from disaster scenes and providing immediate medical care in a contaminated area.
“We actually do victim care and triage in the hot zone. Others will wait until they have passed [decontamination] and then try and treat,” said Capt. Ed Malinowski, initial response force commander.
This begs a question: Is one East Coast-based CBIRF team enough? A look at the nation’s overall preparedness to respond to a WMD attack finds some assets in place, but few as robust as the CBIRF team.
The National Guard has about 52 weapons of mass destruction civil support teams, but their 22-member units are tasked with advising first responders.
Local fire departments, depending on the size of the city, may have the ability to respond to a weapon of mass destruction attack — although they are often underfunded and short staffed, numerous reports have pointed out. Smaller cities and towns may have no response capability at all.
The Army has 78 chemical companies, 58 of which reside in the National Guard and Reserves. Some of these companies are dedicated to domestic emergencies, but they suffer from personnel and equipment shortages, a Government Accountability Office report said.
Meanwhile, emergency rooms in the majority of U.S. hospitals will not be able to handle a mass casualty scenario, recent congressional hearings have documented.
“The vast majority [of hospitals] would have a hard time decontaminating a single patient,” said Carey Pelto, chairman of the Colorado tactical emergency medical support task force, at the Gov Sec conference.
Furthermore, half of community burn centers have closed in recent years, he added. Treating burn patients is costly and labor intensive. If a nuclear bomb detonated in a large city, 95 percent of burn victims would not be able to receive treatment, Pelto asserted.
Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and America’s security affairs, has said repeatedly that of the 15 catastrophic disaster scenarios — most of them WMD related — the nation is only prepared to respond to a pandemic flu and a major hurricane.
If a chemical, biological or nuclear attack occurs, the CBIRF unit is the Defense Department’s A-team.
The response force assesses what the threat is — chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high explosives — performs search and rescue, damage assessment and provides medical care. Senior officers say it is the only self-contained unit capable of providing all this in a “hot zone” where WMD agents are still present.
On the morning of the training, organizers of the exercise kept the CBIRF leaders in the dark as to what they will encounter. The unit quickly set up a decontamination tent and a command-and-control center. They sent in an assessment team of five personnel who donned their protective gear and were the first inside.
Two members of the team were tasked with identifying the threat, which they later discover to be a nerve agent. One member of the team provided immediate medical assessments of victims, and the fourth checked on the structural integrity of the tunnel and the vehicle pileups.
The Center for National Response, which created the scenario, had piled a tangled mess of cars and one bus in the unlighted tunnel. Inside were victims, either dummies representing the dead or role players who feigned injuries from the nerve gas, the car accidents or both.
The scenario is not far fetched. In 1994, the Aum Shinrikyo cult drove an adapted refrigeration truck through the mountain village of Matsumoto, Japan, as its residents were sleeping. Inside the vehicle was a nearly pure batch of sarin nerve gas and a spraying system that created a deadly cloud that spread through a peaceful neighborhood. It killed seven, and became the first act of “ultra-terrorism” — an incident where a weapon of mass destruction was used by terrorists. The second such attack came less than a year later when the same cult released sarin in the Tokyo subway.
The CBIRF team was formed in response a year later in 1996. It spent its first few years at Camp Lejeune, N.C., but moved to Naval Support Facility, Indian Head, Md., 20 miles south of the greater Washington, D.C. region, in order to be closer to the capital. It has been called into action twice since then, during ricin and anthrax scares in Congress. It is on alert during major events such as Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to the East Coast.
Because real-world WMD incidents are thankfully rare, training for such events is constant, intense, and must be as realistic as possible, officers said. They do live-agent training once per year in Canada, and have held exercises that go nonstop for 48 hours and longer.
Several hours into the exercise, Chief Warrant Officer Andy Hilliard, unit training officer, observed as an extraction team tried to stabilize the mess of tangled cars. There were two pileups in the tunnel, but the medical teams could not advance to the second until they could ensure that the cars wouldn’t collapse.
One Marine tried to prop up a car with a jack, but without using a supporting plate underneath.
“I’ll give them a few seconds to figure out their error, and if they don’t, I’ll tell them,” Hilliard said as he lit a cigarette. His patience quickly ran out.
“Why isn’t there a tip on the end of that (expletive),” he shouted at a corporal who was sweating profusely under his protective mask. A chain securing a car was too loose in his mind, and he hurled another string of obscenities at his charges.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tauseef A. Badar, who watched the training from the side and shrugged off Hilliard’s gruff demeanor, said, “you can train all day long, but if you don’t learn, you don’t advance.”
Soon the cars were secure and the medical team moved on to the next site, where the role players were earning the approximately $10 they receive per hour by letting out non-stop plaintive cries of “help me.”
Keith James, an expert on terrorist weapons for consultant SoBran Inc. in Fairfax, Va., said the CBIRF team is undoubtedly well trained to perform in certain scenarios, but he questioned whether the nation as a whole has enough assets in enough places to respond to a major attack.
“How long does it take to get a National Guard team or the Marine team in place?” he asked. It will take relatively few hours for the CBIRF team to make it to New York, but much longer to fly to an incident on the West Coast, he noted.
CBIRF has the ability to send out a small initial response force by helicopter to assist local first responders, with the remaining members to come later by vehicle convoy, the CBIRF website said.
James advocated a tiered approach with local first responder teams that are well trained and well equipped to take care of immediate needs. Then larger teams such as CBIRF can come in to assist.
Such local teams also have to be placed strategically in broad areas, he said. Local first responders can’t put all their eggs into one basket by consolidating hazardous material or WMD response teams in one location. They may end up being the victims of an attack if their location is targeted, James added. Unfortunately, this centralized approach is common in smaller cities, he said.
The National Guard’s WMD civil support teams are placed throughout the United States. A National Guard Bureau news release said its Nevada-based team was on the scene within an hour to assist local authorities when deadly ricin was discovered in a Las Vegas hotel room in February.
Guard teams, however, don’t have the manpower of the CBIRF. They consist of 22 full-time specialists who advise local first responders, analyze samples of possible WMD materials, and facilitate a wider Defense Department response to an attack.
But when advance teams like the National Guard or CBIRF’s initial response force arrive, will they find local first responders to assist? That will depend on the department, how well they are trained, and whether they have even the most basic equipment.
James said he is not a fan of big government programs, but that’s what it will take to boost the readiness of local first responders to effectively respond to attacks. Mandates must be backed up with funding, he said.
“You [must] have equal quality training coming from one source,” James said.
Is the nation prepared to respond to a WMD attack? Pelto asked. “I would suggest not only ‘no,’ but ‘hell no,’” he said.
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