The U.S. first-responder community has faced a multitude of technological threats in the complex field of counter-terrorism, many of them involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and/or explosive (CBRNE) weapons. However, the threat posed by such weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) has diminished slightly in the past few years for two principal reasons: (1) Such weapons have not been used recently against the United States itself; and (2) There have been several other major issues that have seized the headlines.
The question that members of the response community must ask, therefore, is whether this downward trend will continue, or will WMD concerns begin to increase once again? The continuing violence in Syria and uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear intentions suggest that the CBRNE threat may soon be back in the forefront, along with a renewed interest in the equipment and training that goes with it.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain his authority. Like his father before him, he has stayed in power through the use of brutal violence. He and his closest associates are prominent members of the Syrian branch of the Ba’ath party; the former leader of the Iraqi branch of the Ba’ath party was Saddam Hussein. Moreover, at the end of the second Iraq war, there were reports of truck convoys from regions where Iraq was believed to have stored chemical weapons. The convoys were headed toward Syria, which is known to possess large stocks of chemical weapons. Given the long history of general chaos in that part of the world, it is important to ask what might happen to Assad’s chemical weapons when he loses power, voluntarily or otherwise.
It also seems to be generally accepted that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. The Iranian government has stated that it will use that nuclear weapon against Israel when the opportunity arises. Another relevant question that is being asked, therefore, is whether the Iranians might sell any of their weapons to one or more of the fanatical terrorist groups scattered throughout that part of the world.
The Mideast, Japan & the U.S. Homeland
With those issues now front and center, numerous concerns related to the possible use of WMDs are once again moving to the forefront. Compounding the situation is the fact that many developers, manufacturers, trainers, and responders have not learned the lessons of the past, specifically the lessons made clear by two major terrorist incidents involving the use of sarin nerve agents that occurred in Japan almost 20 years ago.
In the first (1994) incident, in Matsumoto, the world saw what can happen when first responders are not trained in how to recognize the signs and symptoms of exposure to chemical weapons. Fortunately, it also seemed evident that, if there is no direct contact with the liquid itself, responders will likely survive the incident. (In fact, although there were some injuries, no responders died as a result of the sarin.)
The 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system, however, demonstrated how easy it would be for anyone possessing basic knowledge of the effects of nerve agents to accurately identify the chemical agent involved. Although the advanced technology detection instrumentation used by the hazardous materials team misidentified the agent, a Japanese responder used common sense and observations to help identify and solve the problem.
A New Approach & Greater Responder Involvement
Two additional questions: (1) Has the responder community missed the obvious lessons learned from these incidents? (2) Are agencies, at all levels of government, equipping and properly training both individual responders and responder teams? In the United States, the subject of CBRNE response has evolved since 1995 into a top-down focus. The federal government has driven the issue via the use of significant funding – for both systems development and procurement – and better training.
The highest priority has been to provide equipment to the hazardous materials teams, to purchase and distribute the best high-tech equipment available, and to give responders intensive training in the use of that equipment. However, in the rush to provide these devices and the training needed, the full integration of the end user seems to have been missed. During the development phase of much of the equipment now available, the new systems and detection devices always seem to work well in the lab – but not in the field. So two follow-on questions also must be asked: (1) Does the current approach significantly enhance the nation’s overall response capabilities? (2) If not, what additional steps might be needed?
Clearly, the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to improve the nation’s counter-WMD response capabilities. But, another urgent question: To what effect? Strong emphasis has been placed on the development of capabilities, but individual responders usually have not been used to the fullest to help test those new capabilities – or even to help develop the new systems and equipment. Perhaps a more proactive multi-phase approach is needed to improve the development, testing, and deployment of equipment – and to provide the more effective training that the American people expect for their nation’s responders.
It is important that the responders themselves be heavily involved in each phase of any new approach adopted to ensure that operational needs are driving the development, training, and deployment processes. The multi-phase approach should be the methodology used for each piece of equipment and each training program. As a closing statement, the operational or tactical elements should drive the training required, not the reverse. If a new approach is in fact adopted, the system as a whole likely will operate more effectively and efficiently in the New Year – and for many years to come.
Glen Rudner retired in 2022 as a manager of environmental operations for the Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway with environmental compliance and operations responsibilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Previously, he was the hazardous materials compliance officer for NS’s Alabama Division (covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southwestern Tennessee). Prior to NS, he served as one of the general managers at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. He worked as a private consultant and retired as a hazardous materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has nearly 42 years of experience in public safety. He spent 12 years as a career firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the City of Alexandria Fire Department, as well as a former volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician, and officer. As a subcontractor, he served as a consultant and assisted in developing training programs for local, state, and federal agencies. He serves as secretary for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee, a member of the American Society of Testing and Materials, and a former co-chairman of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. He served as a member of the FEMA NAC RESPONSE Subcommittee.