Cover Your Six

Fortunately, terrorist attacks on the magnitude of a chem-bio nature do not happen often, but unfortunately for humanity, when or if they do the fall-out (in terms of casualties, economic and political reactions) is catastrophic.

A year ago (November 30th, 2008) the Washington Post in an article titled, Report Sounds Alarm Over Bioterror, by Joby Warrick, cited a congressional investigation examining the bio-terror threat. The report explains that while politicians look to the nuclear threat more often, the "more probable threat of bioterrorism should be put on more equal footing with the more devastating threat of nuclear terrorism". The article highlights that the U.S. Government did not view this particular WMD threat as serious as nuclear, had under-funded the nations defense mechanisms for chemical and bio-terror, thereby making the nation vulnerable to such an attack. At that time, blame was being placed squarely on the Bush (#43) Administration.

Evidently, the Obama Administration has not learned either, according to the USA Today article, Report: White House Neglecting Bioterrorism (October 21st, 2009). In this critique, the same bipartisan congressional commission who criticized the Bush bio-security policies had noted that President Obamas bio-chemical WMD posture for national defense is basically short sighted, and under-funded by a factor of ten. The report cautioned that the consequences of ignoring these warnings could be dire... the clock is ticking.

For those of you old enough to remember the "Doomsday Clock" (see below), terrorists have nearly struck midnight when it comes to deploying chemical or biological agents. To refresh your memory, let's review the Sarin Subway Incident, as it's known in Japan, where terrorists released a nerve agent in a coordinated attack within the Tokyo Subway System, during rush hour, on 20 March 1995.

A terrorist group, with five operators in one cell and five more support members in another, from the religious cult Aum Skinrikyo, deployed to five separate locations within the massive public transit system and released over 900 milliliters of sarin. The toxic substance was disseminated using contaminated newspapers soaked with the agent. The papers were placed into plastic bags and carried onto the targeted train by the terrorist. At the predetermined time, the bags were pierced with the sharp points of an umbrella and the terrorists fled the scene.

The resulting aftermath was chaotic at best. Japanese first responders treated over 5,000 victims in total, although only twelve died, fifty were seriously injured and a thousand others suffered various levels of injuries, it could have been much worse. By an act of God (the sarin drops did not evaporate quickly enough) thousands of lives were spared instead of the twelve that were lost. As of recent, it's been reported that some of the terrorist group members are still on the loose and wanted by Japanese law enforcement.

What is unique in the daily life of a first responder is that regardless of what campaign promises were made and never delivered by whom, our domestic rescuers (police, fire and EMS) will still run into a subway filled with toxic fumes to save those lives nobody else would. Our first responders have demonstrated, with tragic results, time and time again they will perform rescues without adequate training or equipment and knowing full well their own chance of survival is dismal. Saving lives, sometimes at the expense of our own, is in our DNA. Since we know when the call comes we will respond, and those elected officials who annoy us to death every November by filling our TV screens with their commercials will not back us up, it would behoove us to take steps to prepare for the inevitable on our own.

We can start by taking five minutes after roll call, or your shift briefing, and review the Emergency Preparedness and Response hazards A-Z list posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or other references. Pay particular attention to the Toxic Syndrome Descriptions for various substances, and Preparation and Planning for First Responders. When it hits the fan, experience has taught us that you can only rely on yourself and your partner. The first person to run away from the scene will be politicians (probably knocking down women, children, and the elderly as they flee) and the first to run to the disaster will be you. Prepare for it as if your life and the lives of those you have sworn to defend, rely on it, because they do.

Here is the least you need to know for this section:

  • Terrorists, the world over, seek to obtain usable forms of WMD that are cheap, effective and not very technical to use.
  • On 20 March 1995, Japan experienced a chemical weapon attack resulting in the worst assault on their populous since WW2.
  • Much can be learned by studying the Sarin Subway Incident, such as early identification of symptoms, mass casualty handling, etc.
  • Do not wait on your local, state or federal government to train you to handle this kind of attack. They are always a "day late and a dollar short". Remind yourself that the responsibility of protecting yourself and those you can defend rests with you.
  • Seek out sources of information, such as articles like this, search functions, and other trusted web documents.
  • Remember that 90% of any battle is mental. The more you know and can recall, the better you are prepared to react safely and effectively.