CBRNE (chemical biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive) might bring to mind Three Mile Island and dirty bombs. Although these environments are classified as hazardous, officers may find themselves in a myriad of other situations, such as surrounded by the toxic dust at Ground Zero, or the Anthrax spores in the American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton, Fla. Numerous arrests for possession of ricin, a deadly toxin made from castor beans, have been reported from Las Vegas to Escanaba, Mich. With the abundance of meth labs, officers often find themselves in situations immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH), where they must continue to perform regardless of the environment. "There are new chemical labs and that's becoming more frequent, creating adverse conditions that law enforcement has to deal with," says Monroe County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office SWAT Assistant Team Leader Det. Juan Llera.
Because of the detrimental consequences involved in IDLH situations, federal agencies, including Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have established standards emergency responders must adhere to. These not only apply to fire departments and hazardous materials (hazmat) teams, but also to tactical officers. OSHA 1910.120 (Hazardous Waste Operations & Emergency Response) assists agencies by defining hazardous situations, emergency responses and qualified personnel.
When officers respond to emergencies involving hazardous materials, they are required to follow these guidelines to reduce the chance of "an uncontrolled release of the hazardous substance." OSHA furthers emergency responder requirements with 1910.134, which explains guidelines that reference the control of contaminated air. These include "harmful dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, sprays or vapors," and require a respirator be provided to anyone entering into a contaminated environment.
Although both entities are designated as first responders and bound by OSHA requirements, SWAT team operators have a different mission than a hazmat team when responding to potential hazards. "During a normal SWAT call-out, we have to contain the human threat," explains Lt. Darin Dowe, Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office (BCSO) SWAT operator and instructor, and tactical WMD program coordinator.
"With the suspected or actual hazmat/WMD threat we have two issues: Containing the person and containing the threat substance that person may or may not have." Dowe says. "[In reference to] hostage rescue, we can't run into a house where it is suspected there is a CBRNE threat and put the operator in harm's way. We have to determine the level of protection we need before we can take action. Our goal is to ensure that the public and all public safety personnel are safe."
As first responders, tactical operators enter volatile situations and need to function in a certain way to meet their mission. The inclusion of a hazardous material changes both the scenario and response. To meet these challenges, several Florida agencies incorporated hazardous material training into their tactical operations.
BCSO does over 200 tactical operations per year, any of which has the potential to involve an IDLH environment. In early 2000, BCSO attained grant funding to purchase tactical WMD equipment. In addition, the agency bought more than $600,000 worth of gear, including an armored vehicle containing specialized equipment.
However, there were no specific programs for law enforcement tactical responders. The agency then worked with fire and hazmat, adopted and adapted their protocols and made them work in conjunction with SWAT tactics. "We had a foundation of training, and in addition we conduct in-service training scenarios throughout the year for WMD situations in conjunction with the hazmat and bomb squad," Dowe says.
As a member of Florida's Regional Domestic Security Task Force (RDSTF) Region 7, BCSO expanded on its agency training by attending Hazardous Waste Operator Emergency Response, or HazWOpER, for Law Enforcement (hazSWAT) through Safety Training and Consultation International Inc. (STCI).
Meeting national standards
Along with Monroe County Sheriff's Office and Palm Beach Sheriff's Office, BCSO attended STCI's inaugural training in January 2009. Funded through an Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant, this 40-hour, SWAT-only training provided officers with technical and tactical information.
"The pilot course was borne out of a specific need for tactical officers to be able to work in a hazardous environment," states Richard Shoaf, STCI senior vice president of operations.
STCI addressed the need for a course meeting national consensus standards. "It is a very unique set of training evolutions we molded to their mission specific goal," Shoaf explains. "It includes practical evolutions so they are able to perform their normal operations in different variations of personal protective equipment. The different levels of heat stress and the components of personal protective clothing are not included in standard tactical officer training."
Dowe adds: "The training provides agencies the foundation to ensure they're in compliance with OSHA requirements; administration, fit testing and training."
Along with understanding the mandates agencies are required to follow regarding SWAT operation in hazardous environments, many training attendees found the activities involving personal protective equipment the most beneficial. Unfortunately, this gear was not originally intended for law enforcement.
"The conundrum was no equipment, initially, was functional or designed for tactical operators," says Dowe. "It was bulky. It was noisy. The goal of a SWAT team operator is speed, stealth and surprise — most of which does not exist when you are wearing an SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) on your back." Having appropriate PPE and an understanding of the capabilities and restrictions involved in wearing it are essential to safety.
"Firefighters are used to that environment," Llera says. "This is something that they do on a day-to-day basis. Tactical officers use different equipment; having a containment suit takes a little getting used to. You are using your tactical equipment and now you have an added restriction — a cumbersome suit that is going to save your life."
Currently, the National Institute of Justice proposed drafting a PPE standard requesting manufacturers of this law enforcement equipment design it based on what officers need. The draft also outlines recommended drills to include in training.
"Tactics needed to be adapted to compensate for the lack of speed, stealth and surprise normally required for tactical operations," Dowe explains. HazSWAT training demonstrated how even the most simple task, such as placing blocks in a container, become difficult in conjunction with PPE.
When SWAT teams respond to a hazardous incident, Dowe says their primary mission is to secure the human threat and prevent a release. "If the suspect has the ability to release the WMD, it's no different than him or her pointing a gun at you." He explains an agency must know what they are going up against prior to and after arriving on-scene. This allows the operator to determine the appropriate PPE.
"People think if they wear an air purifying respirator (APR) 'gas mask,' they can go into an environment where there is a chemical," he explains. "But that chemical in a confined space might have displaced oxygen and therefore the mask is inappropriate. Once exposed or deprived of oxygen, the operator would begin to have negative physiological effects, which can lead to unconsciousness."
Training, such as STCI's, teaches operators how to assess a situation and utilize appropriate PPE. "We have reached a new level of certification and availability to deal with different tactical situations that we may be exposed to in the near future," states Llera. "The department is better trained and qualified to deal with hazardous material environments [thanks to] day-to-day operations that expose members of our department to new available PPE, the use of the equipment, and its maintenance and care."
Hazardous material response training is a must for SWAT teams. Although it is often decreased due to budget constraints, hazSWAT training is often covered by grant funding.
Beyond initial training, agencies should establish an appropriate program to keep first responders safe. Dowe recommends agencies have a program coordinator and people that are dedicated to the program and understand the equipment. He also advises cooperation with other agencies trained in hazardous materials.
"It is extremely important that any agency going to be involved in a tactical WMD response work closely with its local or regional fire department hazardous materials team," he says. "It's an excellent resource to provide subject matter expertise, technical resources, monitoring/detection during a suspected or actual event and logistical support. You should also have other WMD capable SWAT teams on scene to assist."
Dowe also recommends establishing protocols. "A SWAT/tactical team cannot merely don PPE equipment without certain protocols being established and followed during a deployment," he says. "This includes but is not limited to establishing decontamination prior to entering the hot zone, ensuring that a backup team of tactical operators and PPE is available to affect a rescue of a downed officer so they can safely and expeditiously remove them for decontamination by the hazmat team and treatment by fire rescue paramedics who are on standby."
Departments must also have SWAT-appropriate equipment. "It is important for teams to assess their equipment needs," Dowe explains. "They must also ensure that all APRs and SCBAs are CBRN-certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for deployment into an environment where the WMD threat has expanded. This standard did not exist prior to 2001 but will be mandatory on all future SCBAs."
Due to financial concerns, Dowe recommends agencies buy training suits in addition to operational suits. Training suits mirror the functionality of operational suits (which cost around $2,400) but are cheaper and can be washed several times.
"We can't protect the citizen without the equipment," stresses Dowe. "It's not always going to be al-Qaeda parachuting into Fort Lauderdale, but it could be a crazy guy waving around a bag of powder. [Agencies] can't say 'it's never going to happen here.' "
According to Shoaf, intelligence shared between local, state and federal agencies has increased due to understanding the realistic threat of hazardous incidents. "[In prior training, we spent] 2 hours out of an 8-hour day explaining why we should train on this. Now there is a common understanding the threat does exist," he says. "Now we can focus on safe response."
"We cannot just put our gear on and go running in to affect a rescue," Dowe concludes. "We insure the appropriate resources are in place [such as PPE, hazmat] and do so safely and tactically."
Michelle Perin worked as a telecommunications operator with the Phoenix Police. Currently, she is working on her master's in Criminology and writes full-time. For more information, visit www.thewritinghand.net.