Emergency Crews Train for Disasters of a Grand Scale on the Gloucester County College, New Jersey Campus

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, NJ -- Emergency responders in neon-green protective suits patrolled the campus of Gloucester County College on Saturday, testing chemicals and diagramming the layout of buildings.

Fortunately for the dozens of students and faculty attending weekend classes here, it was only a drill.

The exercise was part of a different kind of class offered by the Gloucester County Emergency Response Center and Underwood-Memorial Hospital EMS Academy. During the course of three days, 25 men and women from local police, fire and emergency medical services trained for a disaster involving weapons of mass destruction.

"We live in a different world than we did a few years ago," said Nelson Wiest, lead instructor for the EMS academy. "And training is what our business is all about."

Organizers transformed rooms on the second floor of the college's student center into training stations for testing WMD and protective wear, a command center, and triage area.

Responders are no strangers to technology, but the course puts them in contact with a plethora of military equipment for detecting dangerous substances, according to Dennis Kappler, operations team leader for the county Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNE) team.

That includes radiological detection kits, a computerized hazardous material identifier and air monitoring equipment.

Even the pace of response during an emergency involving WMD is a learning experience, according to Kappler.

"We want to go slower in a WMD situation than we would for a fire" he said. "It's more technically advanced and there are more issues we need to be concerned with."

On the third day, students will apply what they learned in a simulated, dirty bomb incident at the college's student center.

It may sound like a game, but organizers say it's preparing for a worst-case scenario.

"The threat potential is legitimate," Kappler said.

Those in the course fulfill a classroom requirement that allows them to take part in "hot" training in Alabama offered by the Office of Domestic Preparedness. The week-long course there incorporates live agents like sarin.

Knowing emergency workers in Gloucester County who have taken these courses could be crucial in a crisis, according to Kappler.

"If I recognize some of the folks in the class (during a WMD situation), we're going to rely on their help," he said.

One of those potential responders is Dan Cunning of Logan EMS. He said he took the class to get a better understanding of what exactly responding to a WMD emergency takes.

"I'm doing it to not only get a better appreciation for some of the nasty things out there, but also the people rushing in to fix the problem," he said.