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Image courtesy of Argon Electronics

The Right Response to CBRN and HazMat

The range of potential threats makes CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) / HazMat (Hazardous Materials) response training a challenging business. However, electronic simulation equipment is making significant advances in effectiveness of exercises.

In recent years, the work of the emergency services has become increasingly difficult. Financial cut backs, increasing regulatory burden and inter-agency co-operation protocols all contribute to placing considerable pressure on individual service personnel, equipment and procedural systems. This situation is exacerbated by the rapid rise in the breadth and complexity of incidents that emergency services personnel have to address, and by the growing range of skills and knowledge that first responders are expected to retain and renew. Although often overshadowed by more common day-to-day incidents, the delivery of a comprehensive response to HazMat (Hazardous Materials) and CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) events requires specialised consideration and attention that can
only be neglected with acceptance of extreme consequences.

In preparing for HazMat and CBRN reaction and remediation, training exercises need to be not only regular, but also challenging. Training should stretch participants, and not permit them to just go through the motions. If trainees are not challenged, they are not alert; and if they are not alert, they are not learning – or, at least, not learning to a level that will assure optimum performance in the face of the most severe of circumstances. Hazmat and CBRN training must encourage the trainee to behave as if the exercise was a real event.

This is particularly true now that the emergency services are faced with many different challenges and no two incidents are ever the same. In recent years, the number of potential causes of incidents has increased considerably, ranging from the dangers of entering methamphetamine laboratories to dealing with the threat of terrorist attacks, particularly involving devices such as so called dirty bombs.

To demonstrate the diverse range of threats faced by first responders, consider the very different issues posed by the rise of methamphetamine laboratories, which put both the public at large and responders themselves at risk. The need to flush out these laboratories 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 laboratories.

Chemical reactions that occur during the manufacture of methamphetamine are so toxic that they can produce hazardous vapours that permeate walls, carpet, plaster and even the wooden structure of a building. Hazardous events at methamphetamine laboratories are on the rise and few of those arrested for manufacturing methamphetamine 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.

Such dangers pose a whole host of issues but, historically, 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 with the options available today, they are severely limited.

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 the presence of radiation, this is of little 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.

Image courtesy of Argon Electronics

Image courtesy of Argon Electronics

Another advantage is that simulant detectors like those in the Argon Electronics range can be used in isolation or as simulation probes for use with real detection equipment they offer time and cost savings over traditional simulants or even the real detectors by avoiding excessive warm-up times. Electronic simulants are easier to control and are not capable of misuse in the same way as liquid simulants. Traditional simulants can saturate the training area and cause false positives, whereas electronic simulants have no environmental impact and can be used in public places. They can also be placed in a wider variety of locations, such as within vehicles or properties.

Crucially, simulators offer great flexibility in planning exercises. Instructors can prepare a scenario where the trainees do not know what they will encounter, which is extremely useful because in
a real life situation the firefighters who are responding to an alert do not always know exactly what they are looking for. For example, the Argon Electronics LCD3.2e-SIM responds to electronic simulation sources that represent chemical vapours, toxic industrial substances or false positives.

Instructors can now manage the detection instrument training of multiple personnel, selecting the parameters for the activation of simulation instruments using PlumeSIM, a CBRN / HazMat response training simulator that provides enhanced flexibility and ease-of-use in field exercises and table top training for counter terrorism, HazMat or nuclear incidents.

It is designed on a Windows platform and allows multiple trainees to be managed and monitored from a computer at a central location. The software enables users to plan exercises on a PC or laptop without system hardware, offering a portable simulation system with easy-to-use menus that can be swiftly set up and used to create a diverse variety of virtual emergency scenarios. The instructor can plan a scenario that involves either single or multiple releases of hazardous materials and offers the potential to define a series of release characteristics, such as duration, persistence and deposition, for an extensive choice of substances. The instructor setting the training exercise can even define the environmental conditions that would affect the movement and/or state of the virtual plume during the timespan of the operation.

The instructor determines the parameters of the exercise using the Planning Mode, where a common file format image map of the selected training area is utilised. By placing a virtual release source at any location on the map, simulated chemical and/or radiation plumes or hot spots can be created. Selection of environmental factors including the wind direction, its velocity, and temperature can then be made and, on activation of the exercise, an onscreen counter will display the exercise scenario progression in real time. Thus, in as little as a matter of minutes, a complex training exercise can be set up rich with variables that will truly challenge the trainees to think and act as they would in a real life situation.

Trainees can interact in three modes: table top mode, field exercise mode and post-event exercise review mode. Table top mode offers the opportunity for trainees to navigate a projected on-screen scenario using a standard gamepad controller, offering a level of familiarisation with the simulators that enables them to gain more from the subsequent field training exercises. Field exercise mode enables them to physically investigate a training area, where the system triggers readings and alarms on the simulation tools they carry by locally re-broadcasting the threat scenarios from deployed personal player units that track their progress using GPS data. All data is recorded and can be analysed after the field exercise using the after-action exercise review mode; all player movement and simulator activity can be reviewed by instructors and trainees at debriefing, providing individual trainees with detailed feedback on their performance, maximising the potential for the students to learn from their experiences.

During both the planning and review modes, the system can also be run in accelerated and paused time to firstly evaluate the validity of the scenario design, and then optimise the replayed exercise appraisal within a compressed time period. A pause can sometimes be extremely valuable in allowing instructors to evaluate, test or validate a student’s progress and perhaps recommend changes in approach to ensure all participants get the very best out of the exercise.

In addition to its flexibility and ease-of-use, the system is also cost-effective for the end-users, since the number of simulation tools used can be expanded as and when budgets permit, and, because all simulators can be used independently, there is no redundancy of equipment. It is also possible for existing users of older Argon simulation detection instruments to upgrade their equipment.

Simulators and associated software are meeting the need for response training that prepares trainees for an unknown, unpredictable threat. Moreover, the capability of simulation equipment to play a vital role in improving the quality and consistency of training can only become more vital as budgets are tightened and governments seek the most efficient and effective options.

The use of such innovative training equipment has changed the face of CBRN / HazMat response training. These tools offer the ability to rapidly design multiple scenario options including the type of threat, the point of release or delivery mechanism from single or multiple sources, and a full range of constant or changing environmental conditions. With simulators now available that replicate some of the most widely used detection equipment globally, simulation exercises allow safe and cost-effective delivery of innovative training solutions for the current and the next generation of CBRN / HazMat response personnel.

Exercises using simulation instruments 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.

For further information, go to www.argonelectronics.com

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Steven Pike is Managing Director of Argon Electronics.

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