Sarin: The Unspoken Threat

Robert J. Milmore and Thomas A. McHale describe how a tragedy in Japan is teaching America's firefighters to prepare for the worst.


The police and firefighters of Tokyo, Japan, could not possibly have imagined the diabolical nature of the emergency they were responding to on the morning of March 20, 1994. The subway system in downtown Tokyo seemed to be in chaos as passengers at five different train stops were collapsing...


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Milmore also recommended that FDNY incorporate its procedures around the Army's three-step approach to NBC operations: detect, protect and decontaminate. The fire department has a generally accepted nine-step process isolation, notification, identification, protection, spill, leak, fire control, recovery and termination. (The FDNY must consider OSHA mandates, while the military on the battlefield does not.)

At Bullock's direction, the hazmat section was given overall responsibility to develop plans and procedures to meet this potential threat. Haring identified the Special Operations Command personnel (rescue and squad members) as the initial group to be trained. About 300 firefighters were trained by the hazmat section in procedures for using Level A protective clothing and chemical detection monitors as well as decontamination. Exercise evaluations with other city agencies (including police and EMS) were planned with a scenario similar to the Tokyo incident, the goal being the availability of specially trained personnel who could restore the city to normal as quickly as possible, lessening the impact of such an attack.

5_96_sarin4.jpg
Photo by the U.S. Army
A decontamination device is tried in the Live Agent Chamber.

The Level A suit selected by the FDNY is a fully encapsulated suit with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). It provides about one hour of air before the air supply must be replenished. (The suit must be opened for replenishment.) As a safety procedure, all personnel were medically monitored prior to donning the suits. Working within the confines of the suit can be exhausting. Increased respiration and blood pressure levels are common.

Advantages of the Level A suit over comparable military garments are that it can be worn for prolonged periods in a liquid contamination circumstance and no changing of mask filters is required, as with a military gas mask. Disadvantages are the suit's bulkiness, loss of some manual dexterity and a significant reduction in the pace of work. During training, a small number of personnel complained of claustrophobia while working in the suit. Additionally, two-way communication is limited to hand movement and signals. The operator can carry a handi-talkie in the suit but maneuvering to key the microphone is difficult.

Milmore coordinated with the 77th Army Reserve Command, which supplied monitoring and detection equipment for the initial training. The FDNY used the M-8 chemical alarm, M-9 detection paper, M-256 personal decontamination kit and M-258 monitoring/detecting kit (all miliary designations). Also, the department purchased a microsensor and chemical alarm monitor (CAM), a hand-held device sensitive to minute traces of toxins in the atmosphere. The responders were trained in:

  • Chemical and biological agents and the weapons known to exist, as well as the manner in which they may be employed.
  • The effects of weather conditions on the application of the weapons.
  • How to recognize the symptoms of a person exposed to nerve agent and the initial methods to decontaminate and treat.
  • Various chemical alarms and detection equipment. Procedures were developed to integrate this equipment into the basic "hot" response procedure.

On Sept. 23, 1995, the department participated in a large-scale exercise with the city's Transit Authority, police department and EMS involving a Tokyo-type chemical attack. The exercise began with a simulated 911 call from the subway station at 57th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. The report to 911 was "people being overcome by fumes."

A fire department dispatcher sent the first-due unit, Ladder Company 4, to the scene. Suspecting toxic fumes or smoke, firefighters donned bunker gear and SCBA. As Lieutenant Jack Flaherty got closer to the response area, he encountered more and more victims collapsed on the station platform. He transmitted a 10-80 code (mass casualty) to the dispatcher, reporting a toxic gas situation. The dispatcher notified hazmat and rescue units to respond. EMS and the police also were told to respond.

At the scene, the ladder company members removed victims. They stayed clear of the source of contamination and were relatively safe from most vapor agents by the bunker gear and SCBA. (That, however, would not protect a firefighter from a chemical liquid agent.) On the subway platform, one floor above, an engine company that had arrived at the scene was directed to stretch a charged line for purposes of "gross" decontamination. Gross decontamination consists of using large quantities of water to dilute the chemical contamination.