As major incidents such as the 2018 Novichok nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury have demonstrated, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) emergencies can push national and international response capabilities to their very limits.
At the same time though, these types of challenging CBRN events can also provide a powerful learning opportunity by highlighting the core skills, resources and training that underpin emergency response.
Salisbury poisonings prompt chemical attack questions
In an article published by the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), Retired Col. Liam Collins, explored some of the key lessons learned from the Salisbury nerve agent attack and how this knowledge might best be applied to strengthen military readiness in the chemical environment, to identify shortfalls and to improve proficiency.
Among Collins' key observations was the importance of increasing the focus on CBRN training within the military operational force.
In particular, he emphasized the value of staging "operational-level war games" that incorporate not just disaster response but the full spectrum of CBRN operations.
Combat operations in a CBRN environment
As commander of a Special Forces detachment in the 1990s, Collins routinely conducted close-quarters battle training with live ammunition while wearing protective masks and, on occasion, with full protective equipment.
But with the decision to minimize CBRN training during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he believes the Army's expertise in the CBRN environment underwent a period of "atrophy."
The challenge now, says Collins, is to refocus military efforts on the conducting of combat operations in a CBRN environment, including decontamination training.
He also emphasises the importance of having access to sufficient stocks of equipment and PPE to ensure that personnel are able to operate for extended periods of time in environmentally challenging conditions.
"Taking a timeout, unfortunately, is not an option in a true chemical environment," he says, "(and) even the most mundane of tasks can pose severe challenges."
A joint-agency approach to CBRN response
What the Salisbury attack has also highlighted is the diverse variety of individuals and teams that can be called on to respond to a CBRN emergency - from police, ambulance, the fire service and the military to healthcare organizations, crisis management institutions and detection/verification specialists.
How well these different groups are able to work with and alongside each other is a hugely significant factor in the effectiveness of emergency response.
What is important is that CBRN training offers a sufficient degree of flexibility and adaptability in order to accommodate individual learning outcomes and to acknowledge differences in emergency management structures.
Enhancing CBRN training with real-world capability
Realistic exercises can provide an invaluable training ground for testing the effectiveness of CBRN response.
Through the provision of realistic scenarios there is the opportunity for personnel to hone their practical skills, strengthen their knowledge and enhance their decision-making abilities within a safe, immersive and controlled environment.
Incorporating the use of simulator detector equipment in military CBRN training provides instructors with a flexible, scaleable and safe training solution.
In addition there is now also the option to take realistic CBRN instruction to a new level through the use of software that interacts directly with actual operational detector equipment.
With the use of the new Radiation Field Training Simulator (RaFTS) for example, instructors can extend CBRN training capability beyond the realm of radiological training to encompass a wider variety of hazardous substances, complex virtual scenarios and multiple instrument types.
The security environment in which CBRN responders are required to operate is in a state of continuing evolution - fueled in no small part by the growth of international free trade, increased cross-border movement, globalization, fundamentalism and the information-sharing capabilities of the internet.
In this challenging and ever-changing CBRN environment, a commitment to hands-on, realistic training has a vital role to play in ensuring a common knowledge base, a minimum level of best practice and the highest possible standard of operational readiness.