By Mr. Robert P Johnson (Leonard Wood)September 8, 2016
When a fire alarm goes off, evacuation is the first order of business, but when the fire alarm is connected to the Chemical Defense Training Facility, leaving the building isn't the only plan of action necessary.
Recently, the CDTF conducted a fire drill, which requires first-responders to deal with the hazard, but also required the CDTF to form a decontamination line to assist students who may have been in training inside the structure.
The exercise's scenario could have been at any building on post: a light fixture overheats and becomes a small electrical fire with large amounts of smoke. An employee on the scene is overcome by the smoke and has to be located and rescued. However, to add a layer of complexity to this operation, students within the building are notionally conducting training with live nerve agent. Fire, ambulance and military police are all required to move into action, as well as the staff at the CDTF.
As the only facility within the Department of Defense that allows training in a live nerve agent environment, students would leave the building in the event of a real fire. Once clear of the building and confirmation that everyone is accounted for, the students would then remove the protective gear in a very orderly fashion, to avoid accidental exposure to the chemical agent, said David Schodlatz, chemical surety specialist.
For the exercise, students were Marines awaiting training from the Marine Corps Detachment and not actual students from inside a toxic environment, noted Daniel Murray, CDTF director. The Marines served as role players, acting the part of students who were notionally inside the CDTF toxic area.
The Marines, once the alarm was given, evacuated under the leadership and direction of the CDTF staff. It was not the Marines who were being evaluated, but how quickly the staff reacted and how they executed the evacuation and decontamination, Schodlatz said.
"We would never choose to conduct an exercise like this using actual students engaged in toxic training at the CDTF and there are multiple reasons why. First, doing so would completely disrupt unit training, and there is no capacity within course POIs to allot time for such a major disruption," Murray said.
"Second, an emergency evacuation of the toxic training area would unnecessarily create the risk of spreading nerve agent contamination outside of the facility. And lastly, an emergency like this naturally increases the risk of dermal or inhalation exposure for the personnel involved, and that's something we neither want nor need to do," he added.
While the exercise tested the staff on their ability to evacuate students, it also tested first-responders from across the installation on their abilities to respond to a crisis at the CDTF. Personnel from the Fort Leonard Wood Fire Department, military police and General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital all played key roles in the exercise, Schodlatz said.
As for the lessons learned, Murray said that communication and the initial reports are critical to the proper and rapid deployment of response assets. And while the ability to validate written procedures is a primary task, the ability to test those procedures and improve on them is key to success in the event of a real emergency.
"We always identify small items where minor improvement will help us gain efficiency, and those improvements are then captured in revisions to our written plans. I'm happy to say that this exercise fully validated our procedures, and we stand ready should such an emergency ever occur," Murray said.