Training & Protecting the First On-Scene Responders

First responders must be prepared to cope with the full spectrum of terrorist risks that still threaten the nation as a whole. To begin with, response personnel require ongoing education to adequately safeguard the cities and citizens they have sworn to serve and protect. Effective adequate training is, therefore, key to developing the full level of preparedness needed to cope with any catastrophe – specifically including chemical and biological incidents. The continued refinement and improvement of chemical and biological terrorism preparedness – best carried out through a multi-agency, multi-national approach – is critical to the entire nation and U.S. allies throughout the world.

Realistic Training for Real-Life Events 

Effective mitigation is particularly crucial to the protection of life, infrastructure, and the environment. Training plays a critical mitigation role by preparing first responders for an incident of almost any severity – primarily because realistic planning necessarily assumes that only first responders can be on-scene quickly enough to affect the survival rate and also mitigate the long-term risks of any unforeseen (and usually unforeseeable) attack.

Throughout the world, terrorist capabilities are growing and evolving. U.S. and allied intelligence agencies generally accept the fact that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida continue to seek – and theoretically could obtain – some current or even new types of weapons of mass destruction. If a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive (CBRNE) weapon is actually smuggled into the United States, or perhaps manufactured on U.S. soil, the nation’s first responders must be fully prepared to act quickly and effectively.

Time and intervention capabilities are probably the most significant factors involved in coping with a terrorist attack. To develop those capabilities, first responders require proper training on a continuing basis. In addition, before they are able to help others, they must be issued and know how to use personal protective equipment. In the unfortunate event that a chemical or biological event does happen, the first responders already on or close to the scene may not be able to wait for the several hours likely to pass before state or federal authorities could arrive.

In the first few hours following a terrorist incident, local municipalities must usually rely primarily on local resources. Today, unfortunately, although most U.S. first responders do receive adequate training, and possess the equipment needed to respond to a conventional disaster, many lack the more sophisticated equipment and advanced training needed to cope with “unconventional” chemical and biological attacks.

First responders throughout the nation have not received equal training to cope effectively with all types of CBRNE incidents. Nonetheless, each responder, local community, and state or federal agency involved has a specific role to play in a chemical or biological response. Primarily for that reason, the first responders of local communities will usually be the primary lifesaving group coping with a chemical or biological attack.

Obviously, though, the capabilities of individual responders will often vary depending, for example, on the type of weapon used, the level of responder training previously achieved, and the availability of the appropriate personal protective equipment on hand. It is, therefore, a major challenge to develop, design, and implement the optimum training curriculum for the several different levels and categories of service personnel and civilians who receive training at a CBRNE training facility in the United States. Nonetheless, such training should be consistent nationwide.

Building Confidence With Better Protection 

2010 survey conducted by Meridian Medical Technologies Inc. revealed that only 42 percent of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) said that their individual departments receive the recurring training needed to respond effectively to a CBRNE and/or other terrorism incident. Another survey finding was that about half of those responding said they personally believe that a potential terrorist activity involving a CBRNE weapon or device could happen within the next three years. Even more alarming, though, was that only 37 percent of those surveyed said that the amount of time used on CBRNE training and exercises has increased during the past five years. Moreover, 25 percent of the EMTs surveyed said that the amount of time they spent on training for CBRNE incidents either has declined or is nonexistent; and a mere 15 percent reported that they are “very confident” about their own department’s ability to respond effectively to a CBRNE incident.

It is critical nonetheless for first responders to become, and remain, effective because they are truly the nation’s “first line” of defense against a CBRNE attack. However, many gaps in training and equipment still exist nationwide, including the following: (a) a lack of, or inadequacy of, the personal protective equipment needed; (b) a parallel lack of training and exercises (knowing what to do and how to do it correctly); and (c) a lack of familiarity with the equipment available and/or the procedures to follow.

Here it is worth noting that, during the 2005 London bombings, the London Fire Brigade had to delay rescue operations by up to 20 minutes while decision makers determined whether the underground explosions that had been reported involved any CBRN toxins. That delay, and the untimely interruption in rescue efforts, resulted in several additional deaths. Interruptions when responding to incidents can lead to an unnecessary loss of life as well as heavy criticism within the department.

Nonetheless, it also is true that ascertaining the levels of contamination present requires the use of specialized equipment and specialized training, which are not always available to every department involved, especially smaller departments that often receive less funding. Delays can slow rescue efforts and risk aversion can lead to an unwillingness, and failure, to commit staff to the effort. Furthermore, lesser trained and less equipped departments run the risk of increasing the secondary contamination of responders and hospital staff due to shortages of personal protective equipment and/or the lack of expertise on how to use such equipment.

Another type of training problem is the use of curricula that are “too academic in nature” and/or lack the “real-life” setting that first responders need. In addition to practical training, providing first responders with the appropriate equipment is of vital importance. Training with equipment that responders do not routinely use in the field is impractical and could be dangerous to the individual responder. Equipment also should remain uniform and consistent within the field.

Better Preparedness for U.S. First Responders 

In the United States, although the current efforts in CBRNE training at the federal level are admirable, similar training is needed at the state and local levels to enable first responders in those communities to familiarize themselves with the varying degrees of CBRNE response needed. Realistically, the local first responders will be on the scene for perhaps several hours before any federal agency arrives. A plan to schedule and carry out routine refresher courses is equally important because effective CBRNE preparedness requires periodic refresher courses and exercises in order for responders to stay informed with the cutting-edge advances in curriculum and technology.

Furthermore, many U.S. training institutions do not routinely carry out live-agent training. Such training enhances and improves the self-confidence of first responders to handle actual live-agent events. Several nations – Sweden and the Czech Republic, for example – regularly use live chemical weapons training for both military personnel and first responders. Many first responders in the United States also lack the use of simulation or full-scale exercise facilities, which offer participants not only repeatability but also the opportunity for post-evaluation discussion and possibly helpful changes. Finally, CBRNE training should integrate civil and military personnel because, during an actual event, both components will be actively involved.

Another significant challenge for the United States is establishing parity among all agencies nationwide and avoiding insecurity and unfamiliarity when a chemical or biological attack does occur.eally, a CBRNE first responder program should: (a) deliver standardized instruction and training nationwide, allowing for interoperability between agencies; (b) develop the aptitude and self-assurance of the first responders who most likely will have to respond to an actual CBRNE incident; (c) expand and enhance existing CBRNE resources as response procedures and equipment technologies continue to evolve; (d) use both the social media and the internet for distance learning; (e) develop and use more realistic simulators, sophisticated computer-driven modeling; (f) upgrade the training curricula of smaller municipalities; and (g) raise the awareness of those outside the first responder community who need to be able to distinguish the characteristics of a chemical or biological attack.

To briefly summarize, CBRNE training has evolved significantly over the past couple of decades, but several major hurdles remain. Al-Qaida, although weakened, is not gone from the world scene and will continue to inspire those who want to do harm to the United States and its allies. For that reason alone, the United States must remain vigilant in combating CBRNE attacks – whether by a member of al-Qaida smuggling a CBRNE weapon into the United States from a country battered in conflict or an inspired follower within the United States who is able to acquire the components on U.S. soil. Funding, adequate training, and effective up-to-date equipment are of paramount importance, because the nation’s first line of defense lies in the hands of the nation’s first responders.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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