By Brian Feeney, Ph.D.May 8, 2018
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Four U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, known as ECBC, scientists and engineers spent four days with the U.S. Air Force's Air Combat Command's 823rd RED HORSE Squadron to see decontamination personnel use their personal protective equipment, agent sensors and decontamination equipment.
RED HORSE stands for Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers and ECBC researchers spent March 26-29 on the flight line at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, observing and interacting with the Airmen responsible for decontaminating aircraft and flight crews.
The program that made this possible was created by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, in partnership with the U.S. Army 20th CBRNE Command at the beginning of 2015.
The program embeds scientists who work on chemical and biological solutions with the warfighters who actually use them once they are fielded.
This group was part of a team of nine scientists and engineers in all. Others came from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, the Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division and DTRA headquarters.
Past groups of ECBC scientists and engineers have gone to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California and the U.S. Marine Corps base at Fort Gillem, Georgia for their hands-on experiences with warfighters.
Tyndall's mission includes getting a runway up and running again within 72 hours of a chemical or biological attack. They have a decontamination team that is trained to respond to an attack by decontaminating any exposed aircraft and personnel. They use personal protective equipment, masks and detectors -- many designed by ECBC -- to accomplish that mission.
During the four-day training event, the scientists and engineers observed the base's full decontamination procedure, including watching how the responders donned and doffed their personal protective equipment, decontaminated personnel and equipment and operated their handheld chemical agent detectors.
These observations served as the basis for a free-flowing discussion between the scientists and engineers and the end-users on possible improvements to the equipment and future collaboration on the development of the next generation of equipment.
A lot of what the participants learned came down to practical details. "The Airmen provided feedback on the M50 protective mask versus the M40 protective mask which was very positive, and they also provided enhancement feedback such as the need to reduce the current thermal burden of PPE, larger buttons on equipment to help when they are wearing gloves, easy reach-back when problems or questions arise with equipment in the field and more sensitive equipment for lower level detection" said Carrie Voelker, an ECBC researcher in respiratory protection.
Other areas for improvement concerned the current design of their personal protective equipment. "Watching them in action and talking to them we learned that the overall weight of the mask is very fatiguing when worn for extended periods of time," said Shelby Bartram, an ECBC biomedical engineer. "Also, the ocular region of the mask is highly susceptible to condensation and fog in elevated temperature and humid environments, causing impaired vision to the end user. These are all things we can address as we design the next generation of suits."
They also came away with a new respect for the warfighters who use their equipment. "The way Airmen spoke to each other during these exercises and had each other's backs was humbling," said Monica McEntee, Ph.D., an ECBC research chemist. "They made sure their buddies were safe in the face of dangerous situations. That inspired me to want to do my best for them."
Over the course of the four days, the participants from the different organizations truly got to know each other and discussed ways their laboratories might collaborate to respond to the needs they were observing. "We went to dinner as a group every night. One night we stayed in the restaurant for four hours," said Bartram. "In no time at all, we felt like we had known each other for years, and I am excited to work with them on future projects and research."
Summing up the experience, McEntee said, "The Airmen's opinions about equipment parts that are too heavy, irritating to wear, need refinement, or have improved -- and even the equipment they do not care about at all -- have provided us with huge insights into what we scientists should and should not be focusing on for the future. Overall, it was an experience I would recommend to all scientists working for military mission goals and needs."
The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.