On the morning of February 8, 2012, 26 responders from more than a dozen states made history when they donned personal protective equipment and entered a unique training facility in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
These individuals were the first group of responders to train with biological materials at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, AL.
This historic training opportunity is now being repeated on a weekly basis for responders from all over the country. Preceded by months of preparation and planning, the training had its genesis after multiple homeland security studies and real world events pointed to the need for increased preparedness against a biological attack in the U.S.
“It’s our job to prepare our nation’s responders for the potential threats they could face in the field and the threat of biological materials continues to top the list of potential preparedness problems,” says CDP Superintendent Dr. Christopher T. Jones. “This enhanced training fills a critical need.”
Initially piloted in two CDP courses—Technical Emergency Response Training for CBRNE Incidents (TERT) and Hazard Assessment and Response Management for CBRNE Incidents (HARM)—the CDP will eventually include biological materials in three additional courses over the next year.
“Biological materials, probably more than any other, are the ones we should be most concerned about,” says Josh Erdman, a firefighter and paramedic from Madison, WI. “There are very few places that offer this level of biological training with access to the materials, with results like you would get in the real world.”
The biological materials used in CDP training—Bacillus anthracis Delta Sterne and ricin A-chain—make the CDP the only place where civilian first responders can train using both biological materials and toxic chemical agents.
“I feel more comfortable dealing with [biological] threats having this level of training,” says Tim Halberson, a paramedic from Nekoosa, WI. “I can take this knowledge and pass it on to my department and other EMS services I work with.”
“I have more confidence should I encounter biological [materials] in the field,” agrees Andrew Higgins, a paramedic from Denver, CO. “I have the confidence to operate in protective equipment, and I know that I have the skills necessary to work in these environments.”
Modern Training for a Modern Threat
The CDP has trained using nerve agents GB and VX for nearly 14 years. Demand for specialized training using biological agents has grown over the last few years as the potential for biological attacks has been identified in reports such as the October 2011 Bio-Response Report Card, which concluded, “the nation does not yet have adequate bio-response capability to meet fundamental expectations during a large-scale biological event.”
“We’re excited to offer this training to the first response community because it fills a critical need in our country,” says Denis Campeau, CDP director of training and education. “The integration of biological agents will enable first responders to learn the proper and safe response to a biological agent release and resulting emergency response.”
In November 2011, the FBI arrested four men in Georgia accused of plotting terrorist attacks on U.S. cities using ricin. Training with ricin provides responders a better understanding of how this toxin may be employed, and how to protect themselves from exposure. Bacillus anthracis Delta Sterne is a uniquely derived, nonpathogenic cousin of the organism that causes anthrax.
The objective of CDP’s live agent training is for emergency personnel to trust in their ability to identify potentially harmful situations, use detection equipment properly and trust that their personal protective equipment will shield them from exposure.
“This brings the threat to the forefront and makes it a reality,” says Timothy Cox, who controls security for his hospital in Cincinnati, OH.