Keeping It Simple - And the Need for Pre-Planning

Mass-casualty weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as well as chemical and biological warfare, are terms that create fear in the average person’s mind.  The relatively new “combo” word ChemBio, in fact, has become a term that in the emergency-services field makes some responders automatically think requires “Rocket Science” capabilities – and for that reason is discouraging in and of itself. 

One fallout problem related to that somewhat misleading impression is that there already are many groups throughout the United States teaching emergency-services personnel, the complicated way, how to respond to a ChemBio event. Unfortunately, this is yet another reason why so many responders see the response to ChemBio as a much more complex task than it really is. The truth is, though, that training and practice on the basics of how to read meters (augmented by instruction on the signs, symptoms, and decontamination processes required, along with knowing what federal and/or local agencies to call if a positive meter reading is displayed) – are the major steps to follow in developing a proficient response team.  In short, it is time to slow down, get back to the basics, and steer team members in the right direction.

Ion mobility spectrometry, gamma ray spectroscopy, and raman spectroscopy are just a few of the advanced technologies used in today’s meters.  Understanding what those technologies are, and the sometimes intricate but usually rather simple details of how they work, is important both to the people maintaining the meters and to those interested in knowing much more about them.  However, that same level of understanding is not required for the average responder using a meter at the scene of an incident.  For the responder, in fact, the most important rules to remember are to: (1) “keep it simple”; and (2) know the basics of how to use the meter. 

A Failing Grade – to the Instructors, Not the Students

Unfortunately, there are many responders who will not use the meters now available because the es they have attended focus so much attention on a complicated vocabulary and schematic diagrams that at least some students are discouraged from continuing the learning process.  The more important focus, though, should be on the relatively simple basics of meters, which – if the instruction is done properly – will show students (the nation’s future responders) that most meters are in fact very user-friendly. 

The average meter is provided, in fact, with visible step-by-step directions that walk the responder through the correct steps – shown on a display screen – to take in responding to a potential ChemBio incident.  Without training responders the correct way to use this important tool of the trade, though, the meter cannot be operated effectively.  However, by focusing on the fundamental basics of meter readings, responders will quickly, and without too much difficulty, not only become comfortable with using the meters but also, as a secondary bonus, soon realize that that task is not as difficult as it sometimes seems to be. 

Arriving at the scene of an incident and finding multiple casualties – many of them suffering from watery eyes, excessive sweating, vomiting, and rapid breathing – is a typical scenario that most first responders can face without flinching.  Nonetheless, such a situation is chaotic enough at that point that the responder should not have to waste additional time determining what meter to use, what protective clothing to wear, what decontamination system to use, what evacuation  plan to follow, and what specific toxic agent has been dispersed.  Pre-planning all of these tasks, and others, prior to such an incident or event will allow the responder team to be much better prepared.  Proper and relatively simple training – combined with the preparation and use of pre-planned check lists – will allow the team to arrive on-scene with a workable plan of action.

A Quick & Easy Inventory of Pre-Planning Essentials 

ChemBio “Pre-Plans” put responders ahead of the game prior to arriving at the scene of an incident.   Research is the key element leading to a successful response.  Although the initial setup can and will take time and personnel to accomplish, the benefits far outweigh the efforts needed.  The key, again, is to keep it simple.  The average responder can set up an Incident Management System free of un-needed complications.  To achieve that goal, though, the pre-plan sheets should include at least the following:

  • The types of meters that should be used: Photo Ionization Devices (PIDs), Advanced Portable Detectors (APDs), Carbon Monoxide, Oxygen, Acid and Base Paper, Drager Tubes and Chips.
  • Specific decontamination systems and solutions: Two-Stage, Three-Stage.
  • The personal protective equipment (PPE) needed: Level A, Level B, or Level C.
  • Agent characteristics, signs, and symptoms: Vapor Pressure (VP), Vapor Density (VD), Short-Term Exposure Limits (STELs), and Time Waited Averages (TWAs).
  • Support agency contact information: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams (WMD CSTs), and Federal Fire Service Hazardous Material Teams.
  • Any other information – e.g., Population, Geographic, Facilities, etc. – relevant to the response area and/or to the responders themselves.

Those responsible for developing and promulgating the pre-plans should organize these sheets to fit the team’s needs by using research boards in units, pre-plan files, or whatever else works. Here it is worth pointing out that there are many response teams that have already developed pre-plans (on the top ten ChemBio Agents, for example), so establishing the networks needed to exchange such information is one of the most effective ways to help ensure a successful response.  By preplanning all of the information needed – or at least as much of it that can be reasonably available within a given time frame – a response team can effectively train all of its members by using the information previously compiled by others and arrive on location with an effective plan of action. 

To repeat: It is time to get back to the basics and to develop the guidelines for ChemBio response operations in a more common-sense way.  By preplanning the response prior to the incident, a team can be much more confident, and rightly so, in its response efforts.  With appropriate and effective training, combined with having all relevant and necessary information available prior to a mass-casualty event or incident, the team will not only be less apprehensive about the potential dangers and difficulties involved in a ChemBio incident but also less likely to become overwhelmed and/or discouraged by their own response efforts.  In short, let the technology of today make the job of responding to ChemBio events easier, simply by understanding the specific technologies involved and using the operating tools provided both wisely and correctly. 

William (Jeremy) Magers

William “Jeremy” Magers is a Captain on Truck 45 at the Fort Meade (Md.) Fire and Emergency Services Center. He affiliated with the fire service following graduation from college in 1999 with a degree in Science. He also works as a consultant, and specializes in preparedness for both manmade and natural disasters.



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