Training For The Unthinkable
By: Diana T. Barth
Imagine an explosion ripping through Boston’s TD Garden, turning the building into rubble.
The wounded are buried under rebar-filled chunks of concrete and smoke is rising from some areas as emergency responders in full body suits, wearing gas masks, work in the summer heat, sweat pooling in their boots.
That was one scenario that was created on Camp Edwards this week, as soldiers and airmen from National Guard units in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont learned to work together to search for casualties, extract and decontaminate them, and provide medical treatment.
The “weapons of mass destruction” exercise, which started Monday and runs through tomorrow (Friday), is a final exam of sorts for the region’s Homeland Response Force. That force is one of 10 response forces nationwide, one for each Federal Emergency Management Agency region. If the response force actions are deemed adequate by a joint interagency training and education center team, the regional team will be cleared to respond to actual emergencies.
In the event of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) incident, local responders will need help.
A unified state and federal response has been organized to deal with these types of emergencies. Within three hours of a call from first responders, a Civilian Support Team, one of 57 such teams of experts nationwide, at least one in every state, will be prepared to deploy.
That response team identifies the emergency and assesses the type of response needed. It can, if needed, set up a “hasty decon” effort, using water to decontaminate people in case of, for instance, a chemical release. If more help is needed, a CERFP unit will be prepared to deploy within six hours from the initial call.
CERFP stands for a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives enhanced response force package. That is the unit, or units, that decontaminate and treat victims.
Within six to 12 hours after that, the oversight team will be ready to deploy, and within 24 hours will be providing coordination, community, security, and support services. Responders need to eat and rest.
In a major emergency, a federal response will join the state’s to add everything from more trained personnel on the ground to engineering to airlift capability.
US Congressman William R. Keating, a member of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight,
Investigations, and Management, visited the Cape exercise Wednesday. While many people tend to zero in on al Qaeda as a threat, he said homegrown, domestic terrorists are the ones who keep most experts up at night, those individuals or small groups bent on doing damage.
Having trained responders will make a difference.
The events of 9/11 taught the nation that first responders are put in peril; if there had been coordinated communication, and a response such as the one for which the men and women are training this week, a thousand lives might have been spared, he said.
Even a disaster such as Chernobyl, where first responders died, could have had its impact lessened, experts said, with something as simple as plastic bags used as hazmat suits and a hose-down at least every six hours.
State Representative Randy Hunt (R-Sandwich) was also present for Wednesday’s exercise, and commented that he felt a little safer on seeing the training the guardsmen were receiving, and knowing the response forces could be called upon.
During Wednesday’s exercises, Major Nathan Wilder of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, the operations officer at the incident site, stood watching the triage portion of the exercise.
Some 130 to 150 civilian “victims” took part in the exercise. Some were lying on the ground, makeup having provided them with gruesome wounds, even faux metal objects protruding from their skin. They were waiting for stretchers.
Rudolph Cephas, a civilian reenactor from Fall River, explained that most of the actors were from Labor Ready, a temporary labor employment agency in the New Bedford and Fall River area. He, like most of the civilians, was not motivated by the money, the pay being $8 an hour to stand or sit in the hot weather, but by the chance to help train people to save lives.
Three tents were set up for decontamination. The first, for victims who could not walk, the second for those who could walk, and the third for first responders, so they could be decontaminated before leaving the area.
From the decontamination area, one could see the pile of rubble that was created to simulate what was left of TD Garden after the attack. There, responders in sealed hazmat suits were working to lift a piece of concrete to reach a victim. No actual person was in the pile of concrete, Capt. Glen Kernusky said, for fear that the rubble might shift and actually hurt someone.
The guardsmen in the suits used a pulley to ratchet all of the play out of a chain running between the piece of concrete and their Jeep, and then used the power of the Jeep to move the rubble, freeing the imaginary victim.
Capt. Kernusky, a public affairs officer for the Massachusetts National Guard, explained that the personnel in the airtight suits, duct tape sealing the tops of their boots and, in some cases, their neck and wrists, could not work out in the heat for very long.
At a table set up outside the decontamination area, personnel kept track of how long each individual was out working in one of the suits, made of a plastic-type material reminiscent of a construction tarp. The maximum time working in a suit is 30 minutes. If someone exceeds that time, a replacement suits up and goes out in the field to find him.
The suits had rebreathers, but while the air was circulated, it was not cooled. One man said his boots were full of sweat; another said that, when he let his hands hang down, there was an inch of water in the fingers of each of his black rubber gloves.
Between the rubble pile and the decontamination area, where they quickly headed, there was a medical tent, where victims could receive emergency care before being shipped out for more advanced care.
One of the exercise participants said on Wednesday that the whole area had been broken down and set up three times since Monday, as the group worked to lessen the amount of time it took to be ready to assist victims of an actual emergency.
Outside of the incident area, a tactical operations center was set up. A sign saying “Terrorist Attack Imminent” greeted those entering that tent.
Once inside, one could watch live video of what was going on in several exercise sites, one marked TD Garden and another Fenway Park.
Those in the command and control role were overseeing the exercise, keeping track of both the scenarios playing out, and any real-world consequences the drill might cause. At least two guardsmen had real-life heat-related issues that needed attention.
Major General L. Scott Rice, adjutant general of Massachusetts National Guard, was among those watching the screens and monitoring the operation.
He said he was very impressed with how each of the individuals taking part in the exercise was able to add their expertise, no matter how narrow, to an effective, coordinated whole. He said that as much time was used in preparation for the exercise as was expended for the event itself. Afterward, he said, everyone, regardless of rank, will take part in reviewing the exercise, identifying what did, and did not, go wrong and suggesting what could be changed. That review, he said, takes twice as long as the exercise itself.
His job, he said, is to ensure that responders in the field have what they need to deal with any emergency, as well as to determine the level of response to send, ensuring that a response is neither costly overkill, or even worse, not enough to get the job done.
All of those involved in the exercise underlined the role of communication, Gen. Rice included.
In an emergency, responders need to have the “big picture,” and civilians need constant, correct information, so that they can make good choices.