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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On the street, police, EMS and fire department personnel established "deliberate" decontamination stations to treat victims. Deliberate decontamination stations consist of a series of small rubber baths with a chlorine bleach solution where the victim is scrubbed and clothes removed. The discarded clothing is packed in plastic bags and sealed for disposal. All station personnel were in Level A suits while performing decontamination. Once "cleared," victims were taken to vehicle-mounted portable showers, washed and moved to EMS ambulances and transported to hospitals.

Victims with symptoms of nerve agent poisoning would be treated by EMS personnel with Atropine and 2-Pan-Chloride, an antidote for nerve agent. EMS policy is not to transport any contaminated patient because that would lead to secondary contamination of EMS or hospital personnel. Secondary exposure to nerve agent is as deadly as the initial attack responders at the Tokyo incident became victims in this manner.

As lifesaving procedures were ongoing, the hazmat detection team proceeded to the response area to locate the source of contamination. Two two-member teams equipped with hand-held CAMs, M-8 alarms and M-9 and M-8 paper moved throughout the affected area to determine the source of the agent and direct the decontamination team to contain and neutralize the source. M-8 alarms were positioned at the subway entrance and subway vents to determine that the vapor hazard had not escaped into the surrounding atmosphere. (The M-8 and M-9 papers detect nerve agent only in its liquid form; the CAM and M-8 alarm detect nerve agent only in its vapor form).

The results of this drill were mostly positive and the Transit Authority felt the city's emergency services could respond successfully to an attack of this nature. Lessons learned included the lessened manual dexterity while working in the Level A suit and poor communications among personnel in the response area. On a positive note was the cooperation with local military units, which contributed the use of their NBC equipment to the training.

Put To The Test

In October 1995, two events of worldwide interest took place in New York City with the visit of Pope John Paul II early in the month, followed by the arrival of over 100 world leaders for the United Nations' 50th anniversary celebration. Based on intelligence reports of possible terrorist attacks against the pope and other leaders, the fire department and other city agencies had to address any possible threat.

The FDNY's role in the security plan was to protect dignitaries in the event of an aircraft accident at airports and heliports and to have a trained response team to react to any terrorist chemical attack. Close coordination with the U.S. Secret Service was paramount in gaining access to the areas to be protected. During these events, response teams made up of hazmat, rescue and squad companies established detection and monitoring posts at a number of the arrival points, including the UN complex, the Wall Street Heliport, Aqueduct Raceway and Central Park (the latter two were sites of papal Masses).

M-8 alarms, CAMs and personnel in Level A clothing were in position and ready to respond at each of these locations. If an attack had taken place at any of these points, it would have been immediately detected and contained. The fact that chemical agents are most effective when deployed upwind of the target enabled the fire department personnel to position monitoring equipment upwind of the VIP areas. This insured Secret Service personnel that they would receive an early warning to evacuate dignitaries.

The prior in-service training and practice drills enabled the department to accomplish its mission. Ongoing training with the FBI terrorist task force and the Army Chemical Corps will enable the fire department to continue to provide a high state of readiness.

The lessons of Tokyo are many. Emergency services personnel must be aware of the potential use of such weapons. Close coordination among fire, police and EMS personnel is vital for successfully dealing with terrorist attacks of this nature. There is no substitute for vigilance.

The Deadly Nature Of Nerve Gas

Nerve gas was discovered on Dec. 23, 1936, by Dr. Gerhard Schrader, a German scientist researching new insecticides. The agent was extremely potent to insects but also caused nasty side effects to the inventor. His vision and muscular coordination were temporarily hampered. In 1938, he isolated a derivative of Tabun (isopropyl methylphonoflouridate). It was much more deadly than its predecessor