In 1995, 12 people died and more than 6,000 were injured when a Japanese terrorist group released sarin gas into parts of the Tokyo subway system. Back in the United States, big-city officials in places such as New York realized firsthand the threat and damage a terrorist could inflict and wanted to be better prepared in case of such an event.
As a result, officials – in New York in particular – went right to the Department of Defense (DoD) and requested permission to train at the Fort McLellan Chemical Defense Training Facility (CDTF) in Anniston, Ala., to prepare for a situation such as the Tokyo attack. The first class of civilians to attend CDTF graduated in late 1995.
There was a bit of a hitch, however. The McLellan CDTF – the entire base, as a matter of fact – was slated for closure under the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission. But with the early successes with civilian training, officials decided in 1998 – just before McLellan’s official closure – to establish the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) training facility for civilian responders on the McLellan site. The CDP officially opened its doors in June 1998.
CDP is actually part of the larger National Domestic Preparedness Consortium. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the consortium is “the principal vehicle through which the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] identifies, develops, tests, and delivers training to state and local emergency responders. In addition to CDP, the consortium includes New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Louisiana State University, Texas A&M University, and the Department of Energy’s Nevada Test site.
“At that time there was a need to train first responders in that new emerging threat, and Fort McLellan, at the time, was the home of the Army Chemical School,” said Dr. Christopher Jones, CDP superintendent. “It had the facility that was known as the COBRATF – the Chemical Ordnance Biological and Radiological Training Facility – and at that time there was a need to train folks who had never responded or prepared to respond to that kind of threat.”
Essentially, the CDP’s mission is to “train emergency response providers from state, local, and tribal governments, as well as the federal government, foreign governments, and private entities.”
For state and local officials, training is fully funded by DHS. Private entities can attend for a fee, based on space available.
Training targets cover several specific disciplines, according to CDP, including emergency management, emergency medical services, fire service, governmental administrative, hazardous materials, health care, law enforcement, public health, public safety, communications, and public works.
The CDP consists of its primary educational facilities, but also includes the COBRATF, the only program in the nation that can train civilians in a toxic environment. And in 2007, the Noble Training Facility (NTF) was established – a former base hospital that was converted to a training site for health care professionals and others to simulate situations that could occur as a result of a terrorist attack.
“Our mission has emerged to train first responders in all hazards, but our emphasis still remains in the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] arena,” Jones said.
Unlike many programs that began from scratch after September 11, the CDP was already up and running. The attacks on New York and the Pentagon just increased its profile and importance.
“At 9/11, there was a significant emphasis placed on that state and local training,” Jones said. “I think that that really, as a singular event, created the broad awareness that this is not something that is going to be short-lived – that we’re in this for the long run.”
As with many aspects of homeland defense and homeland security at the time, Congress allocated additional funds, followed by an exponential increase in training for state and local officials and responders.
“The whole mental model around terrorist-preparedness training changed, because while the effects were most notable, of course, in New York and in D.C. … you’re [now] looking at the kind of size and scope of disaster related to these kinds of events even occurring in a small borough in Pennsylvania,” Jones said.
As the word got out about CDP training, it trickled down from other big cities – Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles – to smaller jurisdictions that found out and wanted to get the training they needed as well. Although it had been up and running for a couple of years, events like September 11 simply raised everyone’s awareness, Jones said.
This exponential growth translated directly to an increase in curriculum choices and a growing understanding about various situations after listening to responders of subsequent events. Jones said it has helped the CDP understand better the needs and learning objectives to address a variety of new challenges.
“It became clear that many of the competencies that we train, relative to the roots of our beginning back [with] WMD, personal protective equipment, [decontamination], they’re just as applicable to an industrial/chemical accident [or] a traditional tanker car [accident] on an interstate,” Jones said. “It’s a set of competencies that transfers over into any kind of hazard.”
Perhaps above all, CDP can simulate what other locations can’t. For example, the NTF is the only hospital setting equipped to train health care professionals in preparedness activities for chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attacks, as well as other hazards.
Since McLellan closed, the hospital has retained many hospital capabilities as they relate to the CDP’s training activities for health care professionals.
“It’s very unique in a sense that it’s the only hospital of its kind, so that we can be able to provide real-world simulated activity to the participants,” said Bernice Zaidel, assistant director of curriculum development and evaluation. “The primary audience will be the health care professionals, which could be emergency physicians, nurses, any of the hospital staff, but it could also be folks from the state and county health department.”
The NTF isn’t just reserved for health care professionals, though. Fire, law enforcement, emergency medical technicians, and many other entities are encouraged to train at NTF for “cross-discipline” benefits, Zaidel said. The 125-bed facility is a relatively small- to medium-sized hospital, but Zaidel said that’s particularly beneficial when larger jurisdictions train, for they have a better appreciation of what the smaller hospitals deal with in emergency situations.
“It’s also a great learning opportunity for people to learn what other disciplines are, what their roles and responsibilities would be to a variety of events against all hazards – not just against weapons of mass destruction,” Zaidel said. “It’s a great opportunity for people to do cross-training and actually learn about each other’s capabilities and shortfalls.”
One often unrecognized benefit to such an equipped hospital is that with no real patients and no real emergencies, professionals during training can focus solely on training. A real hospital has real patients and real responsibilities that will cut into training every time.
“Hospitals are 24/7 operations, and when staff are there, it’s very hard to get hands-on training,” Jones said. “They’ll ‘right-plan,’ they’ll put those plans kind of on the shelf, but because hospitals function all the time, it’s hard to take the hospital environment, bring your team together, and exercise that plan and go through all the things that occur that aren’t in the plan that cause your plan to change in real-time.”
The NTF solves that problem. In 2007, NTF began with five courses, and the center is always exploring possible new courses in the future. According to Denis Campeau, director of training and education, NTF relies heavily on student input, after-action reports, and instructors who are constantly looking for ways to improve training. In addition, a large majority of instructors are those already working in the field, exposed to many of these real-life challenges on a daily basis.
At the COBRATF, students have the opportunity to get as close to the danger of a true WMD, chemical or biological attack with the security of knowing it’s the only approved facility in the country to test responders in situations with live chemical agents, nerve gas, and other possible terrorist scenarios.
“[They] can actually build confidence in their own equipment, go into a toxic environment, and conduct these scenario-based [exercises],” said Don Cornell, COBRATF’s assistant director. “It serves as a major confidence-builder to the communities and is all taken back to their communities where they can pass on that knowledge for all-hazard preparedness.”
Confidence in life-threatening situations is perhaps the biggest benefit of COBRATF, and serves as a “training multiplier,” Cornell said. It’s training they simply can’t receive anywhere else.
Overall, however, CDP maintains its focus on an “all-hazards” training approach, regardless of whether it’s a health care course or a law enforcement or hazardous material session.
“The training that someone receives here, they can take it back and apply it to just about any emergency situation that could require a response,” said Shannon Arledge, CDP public affairs specialist.
Training also is focused on “learn by doing” – or not doing – in some cases.
“We don’t let them do anything dangerous … but if our facilitators/instructors see something going wrong, they’ll interrupt and try to guide them in the correct direction so that they don’t endanger anybody, but they also throw in [challenges],” Campeau said. “We may give them a piece of equipment if they ask for it, but it may not have any batteries in it because they didn’t ask for batteries; it kind of raises a level of learning that we have not really addressed before.”
Jones also emphasizes CDP’s hands-on benefits: First trainees will be in the COBRATF, then the emergency room, with an experience that goes beyond the most serious scenarios imaginable. Where the worst many have seen is an emergency room after a multi-car collision, the NTF’s training facility will test emotions and abilities with an ER filled with 200 patients right after a terrorist attack.
“Just that chaos that we create creates this mentally challenging and emotionally challenging situation that not only tests your confidence, but it also tests your leadership skills,” Jones said. “From that standpoint, we’ve come as a culture of preparedness to a different place where the profession has now evolved, where what were trying to do is be the center of excellence.”
Essentially, the training isn’t from yesterday, it’s for the future – but it’s based on those past lessons.
While the sarin attacks may have been the wake-up call, it wasn’t a month later that domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh parked a truck filled with explosives outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., detonated it, and killed nearly 170, while injuring five times as many.
Cornell notes that many often think of such things as individual incidents, but they’re really not. They’re all just portions of a larger puzzle for which CDP can prepare first responders. In 2001, September 11 was, of course, the biggest event of that particular year, but then the anthrax letters became the next challenge. At CDP, all of these events form a training foundation that is modified and improved with each new class that enters.
“You look and say Tokyo could have been thought of as a single event,” he said. “But … look at the other instances where we have not only terrorist use of bad things; look at people who go in on a daily basis and find a meth[amphetamine] lab.”
This diversity relates directly to the diversity of the student population at CDP. In 1998, CDP opened with three courses; now it’s up to 42, with many specialized. Arledge noted that some are only for law-enforcement officers.
Ultimately, it’s up to supervisors and superiors in the various jurisdictions across the country to decide the best courses necessary for professional development.
“We believe that’s a role between the individual and their supervisor to have a conversation and understand what their development requirements are,” Jones said.
Once students reach CDP, however, they receive a comprehensive education to address not only instances for which instructors might have experience, but get insight into what might be the next event for which no one has trained.
This article was first published in The Year in Homeland Security: 2009 Edition.