NAVAL AIR STATION CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (NNS) -- Naval Air Station Corpus Christi's (NASCC) emergency operation center sprang into action following the report of a notional chemical weapon during a recent installation training team event.
The exercise evolved around the report of a suspicious package.
A two-person security team arrived on the scene and carefully made their way through the entrance as they commenced sweeping the building. Each took turns entering, and then covering each other, as they cleared one room after another until they came across the simulated chemical contaminant: a five-gallon liquid container containing a greenish liquid substance.
The two then swept their way back out of the building, re-entered their vehicle and then headed off into the distance before radioing their update to their station. They ensured they were out of any potential range in which radio signals may inadvertently detonate a possible device.
Safety was the watchword for the day--not only safety for the individuals participating in the exercise but also for the safety of the installation as a whole. The integrated training event involved a wide variety of personnel, to include those from fire and emergency services, security forces, working dog section, environmental personnel and those operating the emergency operations center.
Training this wide variety of personnel is vital, said Jim Lawrence, NASCC's installation mission readiness officer, because it helps to prepare for the day, if and when, an attack such as this were to occur.
"You train like you fight," he said. "If you don't train, you won't be able to perform if it does happen. You do a lot of discussions and training online, but if you don't apply it, it's a waste. This was an opportunity for the base to apply what we've been learning: how would we mitigate an event like this if an attack were to happen on the installation?"
After the security forces completed their portion of the event, fire and emergency services sprang into action as the incident commander arrived on scene.
"We got a call for a suspicious package," said Ward Hawkins, assistant fire chief for operations, who was the incident commander for B shift. "Security had identified what they saw; a five-gallon container with a greenishish liquid, and it looked like hoses were sticking out of it."
He said security forces reported that the scene was safe but the initial staging area for fire and rescue forces was not and recommended a change of locations for the staging area.
Once Lawrence determined a new staging area, personnel from the K-9 working dog section conducted a sweep of the proposed area. While this was occurring, an explosive ordnance team verified that the chemical substance was not ordnance or a bomb.
Although the area was deemed as "safe" in reference to explosives, such was not the case for potential chemical contaminants.
"At that point we set up our zones--hot, warm and cold--around the building and set up a decontamination area," explained Hawkins.
The two-man decontamination team then began the arduous task of donning Level-A hazardous material suits.
Level-A hazmat suits are completely encapsulated and prevent vapors from entering into the suits, and the decon personnel don self-contained breathing apparatus. While this was going on, other emergency personnel set up a decontamination site to prepare for the decon team's return.
As the two members of the decon team entered the building, they swept their way through the building toward the suspected chemical weapon. Once they located it, they began the process of attempting to identify the substance through using Ahura First Defender meters, which can identify up to 5,000 different types of chemicals as well as PH paper.
Although testing with the meter was inconclusive, the PH paper indicated that the substance was corrosive.
"At that point," said Hawkins, "we 'over-packed it.' We put it in a container that goes inside another container with a lid and then you secure that container."
Once these steps were completed, the team used a five-gas meter to take readings to determine whether or not they needed to ventilate the space.
The training event was a great opportunity, he said, because it provided the emergency services an opportunity to exercise its capabilities to ensure that standard operating procedures work appropriately and that the crews understand exactly what is expected of them.
"It ensures that we are ready in the event that a real-world incident was to happen," he said. "In any emergency, you can always dial 911 and we will assist you in any way that we can."
In addition to being of value to those participating in the exercise, integrated training events such as this are vital because of the feedback it provides to NASCC leaders.
"Readiness is the key word for what we do," said Lawrence. "We call these events exercises but it is about readiness. There are a lot of things that people do not see: what the fire department has to do to prepare to send these guys into 'harm's way,' what they have to make sure they are healthy, that they are qualified, that they are certified.
All of the things that are behind the scenes, the readiness pieces, but that's the key. I think NASCC has a tremendous readiness capability."
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