You have been dispatched for a leaking 55-gallon drum. The call came in from the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit, which just disarmed a large-caliber artillery shell next to the leaking drum. Your mission is to go downrange to take samples of the air and leaking fluids, then determine the product and its capabilities for causing damage. The temperature is approaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit with dust storms.
Is this a wild tabletop exercise? No, this is everyday life for members of the 68th Chemical Company assigned to the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq. In addition to these missions, the company also provides force protection. Morning and night, the soldiers patrol the roadways around Baghdad, where they are constantly under attack from "improvised explosive devices" (IEDs) and sniper fire from weapons ranging from automatic weapons to small arms.
Recently, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of teaching hazmat awareness, operations and command to the members of this unit. My "tag-team" partners were Battalion Chief Andy Louden of Corvallis, OR; Lieutenant Dave Russell of FDNY; and Bob Mayhew from Davis Defense Group.
We each were responsible for segments of the training and then joined up for the live exercises. Andy was responsible for the medical portions, Dave took decontamination, Bob is the equipment expert, and I finished up with command and testing. The testing element requires a Department of Defense (DoD) certification
We had to begin teaching at 1 A.M. each day, when it was a balmy 90 degrees. Even then, wearing Level A suits severely taxed the physical stamina of the strongest person.
The good news is that these soldiers are highly motivated and committed to their mission. The experience underscored the need for members of hazmat response teams to receive annual physical examinations and keep themselves physically fit.
Each night, mortar and rocket fire rained down on the base. One night, an AK-47 round found its way into the room used for class. Of course, the training stopped during the attacks and resumed upon hearing the "all clear".
While in country, the airport near where we were staying at the time was hit by rocket fire and over 100,000 gallons of fuel cooked off as the company contracted to provide fire protection for the bases had yet to receive apparatus or equipment. In fact, we only saw one pumping engine, which had been borrowed from Bosnia.
We attempted to make the exercises as "real world" as possible. Dave was the master at scrounging up props. The term "dirty bomb" is used by many in the fire service and, in my opinion, too much emphasis has been placed on nuclear dirty bombs. In Iraq, many sites are contaminated to the extent that entire fields must be considered dirty bomb sites. In one instance, a shell was brought in because it was causing soldiers who were around it to feel sick. Sure enough, it contained materials that are not supposed to be there. Guess what: the shell was not marked clearly with the product; it was just rusty.
I think the lesson here is that the bad guys aren't going to mark secondary devices or the contents of dirty bombs, so we need to be ever vigilant and not become victims of these attacks. That means that we train like it's real. Test your capabilities along with the police, hospitals, National Guard, emergency operations centers and others until you reach levels of overload - whatever level that is - and then start writing SOPs or SOGs.
The exercises lasted for many hours, as we did not simulate any of the facets. If the soldiers needed to call for additional resources, then "real time" was allocated. If the leadership did not bring necessary equipment, then they didn't have it (after the first time, the command element of a lieutenant, platoon sergeant and technical specialist never forgot anything again).
Electricity is provided by generators, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinders are filled by a Mogas-fired compressor and the pumps on vehicles are run by diesel engines, so the noise levels were off the charts. I was impressed with the competencies of all of the members of these units. Should they ever leave the military, they would be great assets to any fire department.
We will be providing this training again, in perhaps as many as 10 more trips to Iraq or other places around the world. We are also working with National Guard Civilian Support Teams (CSTs). The experience has given me newfound respect for those soldiers - men and women - who are performing hazardous materials response operations under combat conditions on a daily basis.
Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a retired deputy chief of the District of Columbia Fire Department, where he was chief of training. With over 35 years fire service experience, including more than 30 with DCFD, he is currently working as an international consultant and instructor for the fire service and U.S. military on incident command, training, risk management and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) response. Smith is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and a Certified Municipal Manager (CMM) from George Washington University. He holds degrees in fire science, construction management and public administration.