The Crown Jewels of WMD Training
Homeland Security centers fill in for lack of national first-responder standards
by Stephen Barlas
When the van exploded, Charley Cordova, hazardous materials coordinator for the Seattle, Washington, Fire Department and captain of its Ladder One unit, was about half a mile away in a bunker. As shards of glass, metal, and plastic launched into the air, Cordova couldn't help but marvel at how a once-solid testament to Detroit engineering could end up a mangled hunk of steel in the blink of an eye. It was a tremendously frightening sight.
Fortunately, the 480 pounds (218 kilograms) of ammonia nitrate that caused the explosion—one-tenth the size of the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City—didn't damage any Seattle landmarks. It didn't even touch a building or scorch a stretch of asphalt within 1,000 miles (1,069 kilometers) of the city Cordova and 1,000 other firefighters protect day and night.
That's because the bomb went off in the dry, desolate hills above Socorro, New Mexico, home of the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), one of the five member sites of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium (NDPC) formed after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to train first responders in terrorism response. Each center has a specialty. The EMRTC, on the grounds of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, concentrates on explosives. The destruction of a van is the pièce de résistance of its 34-hour, performance-level Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings–Operations course, which Cordova was attending.
The point of the bombing was neither to give course participants a thrill nor to impress upon them the ease with which a bomb made from the chemicals sold for stump removal can wreak havoc. Rather, the van finale was part of a lesson in evidence collection.
"That's something we simply can't replicate at the station here in Seattle," says Cordova, who's responsible for Seattle firefighters' haz-mat training.
Each center specializes in a different area of advanced WMD-response training with resources that a city, county, or state can't replicate. For example, Fort McClellan, which specializes in response to chemical incidents, is one of only two training centers in the United States that uses VX and GB toxic chemicals in live exercises. The other is Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, a military-only facility.
Of the five members of the NDPC, Socorro, McClellan, and the Nevada Test Site, which specializes in radiologic/nuclear threats, are the most popular with the fire-service community because their training programs are geared more toward the needs of firefighters.
In addition to those three sites, firefighters also travel to Dugway Proving Grounds, a U.S. Army facility in Utah that trains civilians on a limited basis. Dugway's West Desert Test Center is considered an elite site for advanced WMD first-responder training. Unlike the NDPC sites, Dugway's classes cover all the WMD bases. At 40 hours, Dugway's classes are longer than those offered elsewhere, and fewer are held. Only six were offered between November 2002 and December 2003.
All NDPC and Dugway WMD classes are funded and approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP).
Cordova, who's trained at all the sites, thinks Dugway's courses are the best available, partly because of their completeness, the experience of the instructors, and Dugway's facilities.
"They have on-site all the equipment we're thinking about purchasing, and we can get a good analysis of what types of equipment work best," Cordova says. "In addition, their instructors are Ph.D.s who can talk to firefighters. That's not always the case elsewhere. In addition, when they say they'll follow up with you, they do. If they don't have an answer, they get back to you. When you get back home, you can e-mail them questions, and they respond."
But firefighters and emergency-response personnel give the three most popular NDPC centers excellent grades, too. Bob Berg, senior planner for Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, has attended courses at every center but Dugway.
"Whenever one of the other states doesn't meet its quota of participants at one of those programs, I fill those spots with our people," says Berg, who's responsible for deciding which courses Minnesota first responders will attend.
The quality of the courses—and the fact that they're free and include the cost of the firefighters' airfare—makes them very popular. McClellan, the largest civilian training site by far, fills all 50 seats in each of the five to seven classes it puts on each week, according to Marion Cain, acting director of the CDP. NDPC Chair Van Romero, who's stationed at Socorro, says EMRTC has a six-month waiting list. The EMRTC plans to expand its offerings beyond its popular Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings course by adding a course covering response to suicide bombings.
The courses were originally based on input the centers received from first responders at two 1998 meetings set up by then-Attorney General Janet Reno. At the time, the Justice Department was developing a civilian WMD first-responder-training program in reaction to the Oklahoma City attack. The courses the NDPC centers developed were based, in part, on the competencies listed in such NFPA standards as NFPA 472 Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials, and NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents.
But the events of September 11, 2001, held the NDPC training programs up to a much more demanding standard, convincing the first-responder community that the preparations made in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing were insufficient. Many more people had to be trained for a much wider variety of potential disasters, and new issues, such as the need for national WMD training standards, edged their way into the debate.
No national training standards
In fact, there are no national WMD first-responder training standards. That isn't a big problem for first responders trained by experienced instructors at NDPC centers. But when those first responders return home to pass their knowledge on to co-workers, there's a danger the information some firefighters receive will differ from the information firefighters in departments in the same geographic location get if there is no national training standard to help guarantee uniformity. This poses serious potential coordination problems.
When he appeared before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security on September 10, 2003, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, chair of the Advisory Panel to Assess the Capabilities for Domestic Response to Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, emphasized the need for national training standards that would apply not just to ODP-sponsored programs, but also to those other federal agencies offer.
"That effort has not yet been undertaken, but it should be required on an urgent basis," Gilmore says.
Many of the people who provide training also stress the need for national standards. As Fort McClellan's Cain says, "We've got to do it."
Berg, the Minnesota official, thinks it would have been difficult to establish those standards before now.
"We didn't know enough previously," he states. "Now we do."
For its two main anti-terrorism grant programs, the domestic-preparedness and first-responder programs, Congress allocated $2.06 billion in regular and supplemental funding for fiscal 2003, which ended September 30. States and localities can use those monies for training, equipment, and other things. The ODP also awards separate, smaller grants just for training, in addition to the money it funnels through the two anti-terrorism grant programs and the $115 million it provides to NDPC members.
However, none of this money is contingent upon meeting certain training standards.
If national WMD training standards are to be created, the ODP will have to be the alchemist. However, Terrence Flynn, ODP program manager for the Nevada Test Site and the Dugway program, says the ODP training strategy and the emergency-responder guidelines are sufficient.
"Those guidelines are pretty thorough and establish objectives that should be reached for different levels of training, such as awareness, operations, technicians, and management," Flynn says. Participants in ODP training programs submit detailed critiques of the programs upon graduation, and ODP uses that input to revise the courses.
"Everyone seems to be pretty pleased with the guidelines," Flynn adds, noting they were developed with wide input from interested parties.
A.D. Vickery, director of Safety and Homeland Security at the Seattle Fire Department and the chair of the Interagency Board for Standardization, disagrees with Flynn. He believes that the funding ODP provides for training "needs to be tied to a curriculum that meets national standards, such as NFPA 472, NFPA 1620, etc., where they exist. Where they do not exist, we need to develop them," Vickery says.
Adding to NFPA 472
In an effort to fill at least part of the perceived void, NFPA's Hazardous Materials Response Personnel Technical Committee, which is responsible for NFPA 472, will add terrorism competencies to the standard during its 2006 revision cycle. But Bob Ingram, head of the committee's new terrorism sub-group, says there's no need for a separate CBRNE training standard.
"We believe that responders must develop a response base for everyday chemical incidents from industry, then add on to that for weaponized materials with the additional issues that are related, such as larger numbers of victims, crime scene, etc.," says Ingram, who is chief-in-charge of Hazardous Materials Operations for the Fire Department of the City of New York.
"We do not feel that a new standard should be developed," he says. "If there are separate standards, too many unknowing groups will skip the existing haz-mat standards and create this tremendous void in their response capacity."
Nonetheless, many first responders need the kind of comprehensive training offered by Soccoro, Fort McClellan, and the Nevada Test Site. The importance of such training is underlined by an experience George Johns, chief of special operations for the Jersey City, New Jersey, Department of Fire, and his personnel had on March 31, 2003.
Firefighters responding to a "smoke condition" call to a house found no smoke, but they did find 14 one-gallon (3.8-liter) plastic containers filled with a substance that appeared, at first blush, to be gasoline. However, a member of the chief's haz-mat team had just returned from Socorro and recognized the liquid as urine. He knew from his recent training that urine could be boiled down to urea, a component used in making pipe bombs. That information led to the arrival of the FBI, which staked out the vacant house. When the man living there returned, FBI agents broke in on him as he was pouring the urine down the toilet and arrested him. Further searches of the house turned up maps and train schedules for the New York metropolitan area.
Johns wishes more of his firefighters could have specialized WMD training, particularly of the radiological-response variety, since decontaminating radiation victims involves some different procedures than those used at chemical incidents. Upon completion of the WMD Radiological/Nuclear Course for HazMat Technicians offered at the Nevada Test Site, students are well educated in the use of detection equipment and can differentiate between alpha, beta, and gamma radiation sources. Johns is setting up awareness training for his entire department, but he wishes he could send all his personnel to the Middlesex Fire Academy, where the New Jersey State Police train for haz-mat and WMD response.
"I wish there was a national training standard we could all use," he laments.
Stephen Barlas is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He's covered political issues for more than 20 years.
In this Section:
|Lessons Houston ARFF learned from air-turbulence incident
Lessons Houston ARFF learned from air-turbulence incident
|The Crown Jewels of WMD Training
The Crown Jewels of WMD Training: Homeland Security centers fill in for lack of national first-responder standards
|Large-Size Funding from DHS
Large-Size Funding from DHS: Once-tiny antiterrorism office now at the forefront of awarding rapid-prototyping contracts, such as one for firefighting ensembles with chemical/biological protection.
D.C. Detour: New proposed anti-terrorism restrictions on haz-mat transportation through Washington, DC, are also being urged for consideration in NFPA 1.
|Twenty-three new Firewatch incident reports
Twenty-three new Firewatch incident reports