Pentagon NBC Exercise Tests First Responders, Evacuation Measures
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 25, 2003 "If this was a real event you wouldn't be standing here," the director of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency told reporters being given a close-up view of a large-scale chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training exercise in the Pentagon's south parking lot July 24.
If this was a real event, John Jester told the reporters, they'd be standing 2,000 yards away. However, because it was an exercise, reporters were allowed to get right next to the action, to see up close how the Pentagon would respond if this were, indeed, a live emergency.
The exercise, called "Gallant Fox," was staged to test the PFPA's emergency response units in a real-world scenario, said Jester, who added that his agency has conducted several smaller "table-top" or "command-post" exercises in the past.
However, this exercise was the largest in recent years, with several federal and state agencies involved, including the PFPA's police force, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Directorate, and Anti-Terrorism Directorate.
Fire engine units from nearby Alexandria and Arlington,Va., and the District of Columbia were on the scene, as well as a hazardous materials team from Arlington. Doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians from the Pentagon's flight medical team at the DiLorenzo TRICARE Health Clinic also responded. The Red Cross was there to hand out cold drinks to first responders at the site.
About 80 volunteers served as victims of the simulated attack involving a truck bomb that exploded near the Pentagon and released a chemical agent, according to Jester.
The chemical was determined to be a nerve agent, he said. Asked how he knew, Jester said the Pentagon has a "very elaborate" chemical-detection system that can monitor and determine the type of agents used in an attack.
"Victims" of the chemical attack were carried through a decontamination area set up between fire trucks that sprayed victims with water. They were then carried by firefighters to a triage area, where they were evaluated by EMTs and later evacuated to nearby hospitals.
The simulated injuries included burns, fractures and exposure to chemical agents that caused trouble breathing, unconsciousness and seizures.
For most of those responding, the training exercise brought back memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the building. The same parking lot where today they treated a few simulated victims was filled with hundreds of injured people on that day, said Capt. Thurston McClain, of the City of Alexandria Fire Department.
"The magnitude was unlike anything we'd ever experienced - people were all over this parking lot," he said. "This is, of course, just an exercise, but on Sept. 11 we encountered mass casualties the moment we rode in."
"You had to go from dealing with the injuries in the parking lot to getting to put the fire out," he said. "The enormity of it was hard to put into words, there's no way to match it. We didn't really encounter the fatalities until we got inside. On the surface it looked like any other fire, but once we got into it, we needed all the help we could get."
Added Bob Suggs, a 20-year veteran of the Alexandria Fire Department, "We were all here on Sept. 11 when the plane hit the Pentagon, and this just helps reinforce the lessons learned on that day and helps us to be better prepared for any upcoming catastrophe that could occur."
That is why Air Force Capt. Brenda Bryant, a nurse with the Flight Medical Team, said the exercise is something that needs to be practiced.
"Just like Sept. 11, we never know when we will be asked to respond to a crisis," Bryant said. She explained that working as the Pentagon's flight medical team, her staff must be ready to respond at a moment's notice. "So readiness is first and foremost important," she said. "You practice it, then you can perform it."
Although Jester said today's performance by first responders "went well," there were things that didn't go as well as planned. Jester said the biggest challenge of the exercise was communication.
"When an event occurs real-world, you're going to receive several phone calls - it could be someone in the parking lot on a cell phone, it could be a police officer with a radio - you get a lot of calls coming in," he said. "The challenge we have for this building is that we have 23,000 people, so it's how fast we can communicate with them."
Jester said the Pentagon uses a public-address system to communicate to its employees in the event of such an emergency. There is also a Computer Emergency Notification System, a network that allows the PFPA to send a message to every computer in the building, he said.
Prior to this exercise PFPA used CENS to notify Pentagon employees that only pre-designated workforce employees would take part in the exercise. Messages were sent telling employees not to evacuate the building and not to respond to CENS messages that read, "Exercise." They were also warned not to panic if they saw employees evacuating the building wearing emergency escape masks.