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Clear Day Turned Ugly Tests Georgia's First Responders

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga., Sept. 26, 2003 – Much like New York on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, it was a beautiful day in Atlanta -- sunny skies, temperatures in the 70s, a light breeze. Sept. 25, 2003, was a perfect day to call in sick -- but not if you were one of Georgia's first responders.

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As part of the weapons of mass destruction exercise at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., Sept. 25, this fully ablaze mock airplane simulated an aircraft that intentionally had been flown into a nuclear, biological and chemical laboratory. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample,USA
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

At around 11:45 a.m., there was a loud explosion. A half hour later, a wall of flames ignited the sky. Suddenly, this beautiful day had turned ugly -- and that's just what Charles George, an Army warrant officer with the Georgia State Defense Force, had hoped for.

George was not the evil person behind the dastardly turn of events. He helped to formulate the scenario for the full-scale weapons of mass destruction exercise that took place Sept. 25 on a runway here.

The exercise's purpose was to test the state's first responders. It was the highlight of a weeklong conference sponsored by the Homeland Security Summit Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

The real culprit in the exercise scenario was a protester at a local college campus who turned out to be a terrorist suicide bomber.

Fire and rescue teams, along with police from Atlanta, Smyrna and Austell, arrived to assess the situation. They found a dead terrorist and a small parcel with an unexploded bomb. Bomb disposal teams with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation detonated the bomb, but the scenario took a new twist.

First responders learned a commuter jet had been hijacked at Atlanta's nearby Hartsfield International Airport. The plane, with 85 people on board, was heading toward the campus. The pilot, a naturalized U.S citizen, was using the smoke from the earlier bombing to guide him to his target: a building on the campus that housed a nuclear, biological and chemical research laboratory.

The plane -- a huge, rusting, tin structure made to resemble an aircraft crashed into its target, exploding in flames, thickening the exercise plot. More disaster resources would be needed.

First responders from all levels of the local, state and federal government joined in, including elements of the military that now had to deal with a possible NBC situation.

While the firefighters worked to put out the flames, other first responders attended to victims. As a precaution, firefighters set up water hoses to spray any possible chemical contaminants off of victims before they could receive medical treatment. Meanwhile, as police helped to cordon off and secure the scene, everyone appeared to be cooperating.

"The whole reason we're doing this exercise is to get cooperation and get some experience at doing this," said George. "We can't just do this in Georgia. We've got to do this all over the United States. You've got to get everyone involved.

"This is a national team effort," George continued. "If we pull together as a nation, we will be able to respond more effectively to these disasters. The more we train, the more familiar we are with the situation, the better we'll be able to handle this. And we will prevail."

Because the exercise involved a NBC scenario, the 4th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team was called to the scene. The unit is made of a specially trained team of Army and Air National Guard personnel who are experts at handling and sampling hazardous materials.

Although most local responders have their own hazardous materials teams, the special military unit often is called in to assist local first responders, said Maj. Kevin McCann, a team leader. "Since Sept. 11, we've responded to more than 100 calls."

The unit is one of 32 such WMD civil support teams throughout the United States, trained at a variety of civilian and military schools. According to one team member, they spend about 260 days a year training -- each team member is cross-trained to do the other's job.

McCann said each of his team members has been through 2,000 hours of hazardous materials training. "That's pretty good, (considering) the normal HAZMAT technician has about 80 hours," he said.

Wearing specially designed protective suits, the unit can enter any Biolevel 4 environment -- an environment that contains the most dangerous microbes known, such as Ebola virus and smallpox -- and help local first responders analyze and gather samples of possible NBC materials.

During this exercise, the team brought out four samples from the research lab that later were determined not to be of any nuclear, biological or chemical threat.

"Once we bring the samples out, we not only do a field test downrange, but we take them in to a MALS (mobile analytical lab system) that has a Biolevel 3 glove box," McCann said, "and we can do further field analysis and give you a pretty good on-site identification. We're still going to take that sample (and) send it off to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for further analysis," he said.

The MALS looks like an ordinary van, but inside is a sophisticated laboratory for detecting and analyzing nuclear, biological and chemical material.

The Disaster Medical Assistance Team from Atlanta also played a major role in the exercise. The team is part of the National Disaster Medical System, part of the Department of Homeland Security. The regional medical assistance teams are composed of volunteer nurses and doctors from around the country.

The Atlanta team mobilized to provide medical care for the exercise victims. In only 15 minutes after arriving, the group stood up a three-tent medical treatment center and morgue, then began triaging patients suffering from realistically simulated burns, smoke inhalation, broken bones and other injuries.

Wendy Nesheim, a nurse and the team's spokeswoman, said the group was proud of its accomplishment. "We were organized and efficient," she said. "We got patients in and out, and we're very happy with the results."

Also pleased with the results was John Taylor, director of the Homeland Security Summit. Surveying dozens of first responders as they packed up their gear, Taylor said the exercise was a "big success."

"You can tell by the conversations that are taking place, the connections that are taking place," he said. "We had first responders talking to the state and federal responders, so this was a good day."

By 3 p.m. the runway at Dobbins was abandoned. The sirens and flashing lights had been turned off, the fires were out, and the smoke had wafted away. The sky was clear for what was left of the beautiful day.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDoctors and nurses of the Atlanta Disaster Medical Assistance Team evaluate a patient during a weapons of mass destruction exercise at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., Sept. 25. The team is made up of volunteer health care professionals who mobilize during times of crisis. The teams can mobilize within hours and provide medical service to 250 patients a day for up to 72 hours. The Atlanta team recently provided medical care for victims of Hurricane Isabel in North Carolina. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMembers of the 4th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team prepare to enter a building and retrieve chemical samples during the WMD exercise at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., Sept. 25. The team is one of only 32 such military units in the United States that support local first responders in the sampling and testing of hazardous materials, such as nuclear, chemical and biological agents. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMembers of the Georgia State Defense Force provided security and helped to carry victims to the medical triage area during the weapons of mass destruction exercise at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., Sept. 25. The unit assists with evacuation and control during natural disasters. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Capt. Carrie Hiser, a medical operations officer with the 4th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, prepares a sample for chemical and biological analysis inside the mobile analytical lab system during the weapons of mass destruction exercise at Dobbins Air Reserves Base, Ga., Sept. 25. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFirefighters from the cities of Austell and Smyrna battle an intense fire from an airplane crash during a weapons of mass destruction exercise at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., Sept. 25. The firefighters also used their equipment to decontaminate victims during the exercise. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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