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How CBRN training programmes can benefit from lessons learned

Written by Bryan W Sommers, Argon Electronics

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.

Conversely though, these types of challenging CBRN events can also provide a powerful learning opportunity by highlighting the core skills, resources and training that most effectively support and 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, former director of the Modern War Institute at West Point, explores some of the key lessons learned from the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

He also discusses how this knowledge might best be applied in order to strengthen military readiness in the chemical environment, to identify readiness shortfalls and to improve proficiency.

Among Collins’ key observations is the importance of increasing the focus on CBRN training within the military operational force.

In particular, he emphasises 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 says, he 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 minimise 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 is vital in ensuring 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

Another factor that the Salisbury attack highlights 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 organisations, crisis management institutions and detection/verification specialists.

How well these different groups are able to work with and alongside each other can be 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 response to a CBRN incident.

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 into military CBRN training continues to provide 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 new software that interacts directly with actual operational detector equipment.

With the introduction of the new Radiation Field Training Simulator (RaFTS) for example, there is the opportunity to extend CBRN training capability beyond the realm of radiological training to encompass a much wider variety of hazardous substances, even more 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 – fuelled in no small part by the growth of international free trade, increased cross-border movement, globalisation, 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.


About the Author

Sergeant Major Bryan W Sommers has forged a distinguished career in the fields of CBRNe and HazMat training. He recently retired after twenty-two years service in the US Army, with fourteen years spent operating specifically in Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) environments. In 2020 he was appointed as Argon Electronics’ North American business development manager.

How to ensure optimum response to nuclear and radiological incidents

Written by Steven Pike, Argon Electronics

Whenever there is the need to respond to an incident that involves the release of an uncontrolled source of radiation, a critical objective will be to minimise the risk of unnecessary exposure.

Radiological incidents where there is the potential for a significant release of radionuclides are many and varied – whether it be a transportation accident, a fire within a nuclear fuel manufacturing plant, or a terrorist act that involves the use of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or improvised nuclear device (IND).

Assessing the radiological risk

The danger that any specific radiological incident will pose to human and environmental safety will depend on a variety of factors:

  • The type of radionuclides that are involved
  • The size, scope and complexity of the incident
  • The feasibility of proposed protective actions
  • The timing of notification and response
  • The efficiency with which protective actions are implemented

A guide to initial protective actions

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Protection Action Guide (PAG) for Radiological Incidents 2017 provides an invaluable framework to aid public officials in their planning for emergency response to radiological incidents.

The PAG defines a radiological incident as an event or series of events – whether deliberate or accidental – that leads to the release of radioactive materials into the environment in sufficient levels to warrant protective actions.

Additionally, the Radiological/Nuclear Incident Annex to the Response and Recovery Federal Interagency Operations Plans 2016 provides a useful frame of reference by setting out the three key operational phases that can guide radiological response and recovery.

Phase 1 of the plan is termed Primarily Pre-Incident and comprises three categories; 1a – during which where there are normal operations; 1b – where there is an increased likelihood or elevated risk of threat and 1c – where there is evidence of a near certain or credible threat.

The second phase pertains to either when a radiological or nuclear incident first occurs or when notification of that incident is received.

Once again, there are three distinct stages within this phase: 2a – which is concerned with activation, situational assessment and movement; 2b – which relates to the employment of resources and the stabilisation of the incident and 3b – which begins with the commencement of intermediate operations.

Phase 3 of the federal radiological plan focuses on the tasks that pertain to sustained, long-term recovery operations – beginning with the recovery actions that will be put in place to reduce radiation in the environment to acceptable levels and ending when all recovery actions have been completed.

The phases of the EPA’s Protection Action Guide take into account the fact that the priorities that are set – and the decisions that are made early in the response – can often have a cascading effect on future actions and on the nature and efficiency of recovery.

In addition, the guidelines also recognise that radiological/nuclear response activities can often be concurrent and interdependent.

Realistic training for radiological events

The locations in which radiation incidents may occur can often be difficult to predict – and particularly in the case of acts of radiological terrorism.

In the case of the detonation of an RDD for example, the incident could feasibly take place in any location, with the potential for radiological contaminants to disperse over a wide variety of terrain and surfaces.

Training for the unpredictable nature of radiological events can present some unique and complex challenges.

High-fidelity field training exercises can often be expensive and impractical to carry out with any degree of frequency.

In some cases too, essential hands-on learning opportunities such as the understanding of shielding or inverse square law can be diminished or overlooked altogether.

It is crucial that students have access to the most realistic learning experience possible – but at the same time it is also imperative that there is zero risk to personal safety, the safety of the wider community, the environment, equipment or infrastructure.

The use of intelligent simulator training systems provide CBRN and HazMat response personnel with the opportunity to train for actual radiological scenarios in real-life settings – and to gain practical hands-on experience using true-to-life equipment.

An even greater level of hands-on authenticity can now also be achieved through the use of innovative new training systems such as the Radiation Field Training Simulator (RaFTS) which enables trainees to safely train against a diverse variety of radiological hazards whilst using their own actual detector equipment.

The delivery of effective radiation training relies on a careful balance between authenticity and safety.

RaFTS’ merging of virtual and real-world capability makes it possible for instructors to replace the use of individual simulators with a singular, universal training solution that can be connected to a vast array of real detector equipment.


About the Author

Steven Pike is the Founder and Managing Director of Argon Electronics, a leader in the development and manufacture of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) and hazardous material (HazMat) detector simulators. He is interested in liaising with CBRN professionals and detector manufacturers to develop training simulators as well as CBRN trainers and exercise planners to enhance their capability and improve the quality of CBRN and Hazmat training.