In the past, training personnel for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incidents was relatively straightforward. Today, however, the task is far more complicated. The emergency services are faced with many different challenges and no two incidents are ever the same. This is largely due to the fact that, in recent years, the range of potential incidents has increased considerably, spanning from the dangers of entering meths labs to dealing with the threat of terrorist attacks, especially involving devices such as so-called dirty bombs.
There are many challenges to meet in training first responders to deal with CBRN incidents and to provide the best service it is necessary to consider some of the advanced technology now available – in particular, simulation instruments and software – to specify, equip and plan for the most appropriate training techniques. First responder organisations can then ensure that personnel are adequately trained to deal effectively with CRBN threats.
Simulation equipment is now playing a vital role in improving the quality and consistency of training and that role can only become more vital as budgets are tightened and governments are looking for the most efficient and effective options. In Europe, for example, Government spending has declined substantially as a result of the financial crisis. With reductions in transnational civil defence spending and resultant changes to organisational structures, the efficiency of simulation training is now more valuable than ever.
Traditionally, CBRN response training has involved trainees carrying real detection instruments, searching for small quantities of simulants and even, in the case of training for nuclear hazards, responding to hand-written signs showing the level of radiation present at a given location. These methods have of course been useful in training responders to deal with CBRN threats but compared to the options available today, they are unsatisfactory.
For example, using real detectors in training temporarily takes equipment out of service. Worse still, it poses the risk of it being damaged and decommissioned for a far longer time while it is repaired, recalibrated or replaced. There are also personal risks to trainees during exercises that involve simulants of hazardous substances, since even small quantities of this material can pose a real health hazard. As for using hand-written signs as indicators of contamination, this is of limited benefit since it does not allow trainees to develop any understanding of how to handle and use detection instruments or how to interpret the readings they provide. In contrast, the use of simulation equipment has recently provided a much-needed upgrade to CBRN response training and is currently enabling the delivery of a highly efficient, flexible and cost-effective service.
This upgrade is particularly welcome when we consider the range of threats now facing first responders. Take, for example, the rise of methamphetamine laboratories, which put both the public at large and responders themselves at risk. The need to flush out these labs is urgent; in addition to the risk of explosion there is a serious and constant threat posed to the environment and local residents by the chemical contamination from the hazardous waste of these labs. Chemical reactions that occur during the manufacture of meth are so toxic that they can produce hazardous vapours that can permeate walls, carpet, plaster and even the wooden structure of the building. Hazardous events at meth labs are on the rise and few of those arrested for manufacturing meth are trained chemists. This adds to the danger because these “cooks”, who have little or no chemical training and learn their formulas from other cooks on the internet, are playing with chemicals that are highly corrosive or flammable. Some chemicals will react with each other – or even water – to cause a fire or explosion, or emit vapours that that attack mucous membranes, skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. With so many challenges to face, there is an urgent need for responders to be thoroughly prepared and be clear and confident about how to operate their equipment, enabling them to concentrate their efforts on the specific threat in hand.
Using programmable electronic sources, simulation training systems are capable of simulating a wide range of threats. In each case, the exact functionality, look and feel of real life in-service equipment is replicated, making it easy for trainees to transfer their knowledge from the training centre to the field of operations.
The ease with which these simulations can be set up significantly increases the efficiency and flexibility of training exercises, allowing instructors to simulate a wide range of realistic scenarios. In the UK, Argon Electronics supply the nation’s emergency responders and armed forces with simulation equipment that enables them to regularly run training courses which include very realistic exercises. By delivering the highest possible standards of training to their students these organisations ensure that personnel can return to their units with the knowledge and skills to deal effectively with specific threats and to meet the changing needs of contingency operations.
Argon Electronics also provides simulation equipment to responders across the globe for local exercises. For example, an exercise based on the radioactive output of a fictitious nuclear power station recently took place in the USA using PlumeSIM™ software. The capability of PlumeSIM™ to trigger readings and alarms on the simulation tools carried by response trainees brought a valuable flexibility to the exercise. PlumeSIM™ allowed the exercise controller to manage the staging of the simulation by pausing or fast forwarding the exercise to suit the precise progress and status of the exercise participants. While a real event would not allow this opportunity, the potential to pause the exercise is valuable in training that may be designed to evaluate, test or validate, and allows the students to get the most out of the day’s experience.
PlumeSIM™ uses Windows-based software to allow multiple trainees to be managed and monitored from a computer at a central location within the exercise area. Typically, a training exercise scenario is setup using a built-in mapping system or locally drawn plans, onto which a plume or hotspot is defined. This can be based on variety of specific substances, CW agents, radionuclides or compounds, and be configured to reflect different release characteristics including duration, direction, persistence and deposition.
In the classroom, the system allows trainees to navigate a virtual world using gamepad controllers, while simulators indicate readings and alarm accordingly. In the field, trainees are equipped with a portable GPS-equipped device, which automatically receives instructions from the central control computer; the portable device then relays the simulated readings to the simulators carried by the student, which in turn provides an indication of the simulated threat that is present. This system allows the movement of trainees, along with monitoring errors and initiating simulated readings and alarms to be tracked and monitored in real time. All data is recorded and can be analysed after the field exercise, providing individual trainees with detailed feedback on their performance.
An entirely different but equally challenging simulation exercise to the one mentioned above recently took place in the UK. In what was understood to be the first UK event of its kind on such a scale, Argon Electronics provided the Lancashire Fire Service with the capability to safely simulate the release of a radiological hazard. The scenario involved the simulated crash of an aircraft following a terrorist hijack, and the release of a radioactive material at the site. Firefighters were greeted by the tail section of an aircraft that had crushed a car with passengers inside. Billowing black smoke led on to the main body of the aircraft, realistically manned by ‘injured’ volunteers who had previously been ‘contaminated’ with safe simulant materials. Other simulation sources were strategically located in the wreckage. Equipped with Argon simulators in place of the real detectors, personnel were able to realistically carry out their roles without risk of harm or damage to themselves, other participants, their equipment or the environment.
Such is the effectiveness of simulation tools and software that they are now a regular feature of response exercises designed not only as training but as showcases and knowledge-sharing events that aim to promote best practice. For example, one of the aims of RECCEX 12, the major Nordic CBRN Reconnaissance Exercise, which took place in Sweden during August 2012, was to develop and exchange the latest and best methods of responding to CBRN threats. The use of Argon’s simulation tools, which were upgraded in preparation for the exercise, enabled the participants to experience first-hand the benefits of today’s state-of-the-art equipment. Argon provided over 50 simulators for the exercise, which included a demonstration of PlumeSIM™ software. Several chemical reconnaissance exercises were carried out by the platoons, who were tasked with identifying and recording the location of simulated release chemicals, enabling spectators and participants to appreciate first-hand how the operational flexibility of modern simulation equipment enhances the capability to counter CBRN incidents.
Exercises such as these have enabled some specific problems to be identified and addressed long before a real life emergency. These have included problems of reading detection instrument displays accurately in bright sunlight, the difficulty of clearly communicating readings back to a command and control centre while wearing protective clothing, and the confusion that can arise if several personnel are using different detectors, each of which has been calibrated to output readings using different measurement scales.
Modern training simulation systems now play a key role in helping the emergency services improve response times, the safety of their personnel and the public, and their ability to combat a wide and varied range of CRBN incidents. Despite these economically challenging times, it is clear that governments worldwide are placing a high degree of importance on CBRN training. Simulation equipment enables first responder organisations to ensure that personnel are adequately trained to deal effectively with CRBN threats.