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How to...Start a WMD Unit

Does your agency have a team to deal with a Weapons of Mass Destruction incident?

September 01, 2003  |  by Shawn Hughes

In the days following 9/11, many citizens wondered aloud if their local public safety agencies were prepared to protect them if their communities were attacked. Unfortunately, until recently, the answer to that question was often, No. Even with the current interest in homeland security, there still is no clear blueprint for creating a Weapons of Mass Destruction unit. But many departments are forging ahead and making the rules. This article should help get you started in joining the ranks of agencies armed with the skills to respond to WMD attacks.

Why a WMD Unit?

A WMD unit trains together and is tasked with responding to, assessing, and resolving the crisis portion of any Weapons of Mass Destruction event. Doing so is beyond the ability of most special units, much less patrol. This is not to slight these groups. The knowledge necessary to successfully resolve such an incident is not yet widely available.

Responders to a WMD incident must be capable of assessing any agents or products disseminated as well as how rapidly they are spreading, and be equipped to contain and neutralize them. These tasks require an above-average knowledge of chemistry, meteorology, physics, and tactics, not to mention immediate access to some fairly specialized equipment. HazMat is not enough.

While some of the units at an agency may already have some pieces of the puzzle necessary to respond to WMD disasters, no current units have all of the necessary tools.

Bomb Squads are excellent at hazard prediction, awareness of chemical agents, and establishing deployment methods. But they have very little gear for mass decontamination or a sustained event. HazMat teams are excellent at decontamination and use of PPE (the specialized protective ensembles the team members wear), but they usually don't have the necessary diagnostic gear, specialized knowledge of WMD agents, or expertise in deployment methods.

Jim Schneden, who supervises the Tucson (Ariz.) Police Department bomb squad, which trains with the HazMat unit at the Tucson Fire Department, believes a WMD unit serves an important, specialized function that cannot be handled by a different type of unit.

"For bomb guys in a WMD response," Schneden says, "time is of the essence-get in, get out, figure it out, mitigate the problem. HazMat types are cautious and will take as much time as necessary to figure out what they have."

WMD events usually can't wait that long.

Choose a Model

A successful WMD unit must be comprised of people who are dedicated to the task at hand. But that doesn't mean team members' time must be devoted solely to the unit. Your agency might not have the funds or the need for a full-time WMD unit. A better approach might be to gather a group of officers that can be called on to function as a unit when needed for training or a major incident, but who have other assignments most of the time. A countywide WMD unit that draws members from various agencies when necessary might be more appropriate and financially feasible for your jurisdiction and surrounding communities. Choose whatever works best for your area. The important thing is that an effective team be available should a WMD event occur.

While not a simple path, the route to building your own unit is fairly straightforward.

Gather the Masses

First, if the mandate to spin up a unit didn't come from your agency's administration, take time to secure top officials' blessings. (After all, without them, no project will fly anyway, right?) You may have to reassure them that it won't drain the agency's coffers (it shouldn't). With today's emphasis on homeland security, if you can secure funding, it shouldn't require a lot of arm twisting to get a WMDU project green-lighted.

After getting the OK, start finding people willing to help you start a WMD unit. They don't even need to all be from inside your department. If your local fire department is responsible for HazMat, it's an excellent resource. Your emergency management people are another. Also, tap emergency medical services personnel for insight into necessary preparation for a WMD unit. Every incident will have a severe medical impact.

All emergency response agencies will be called to task in the event of a crisis, and many may have already come up with solutions to problems you anticipate facing during an incident. Collaborating now may save a lot of duplication and overlapping later.

Cover Your Bases

Once you have gathered your planning group together, start assessing your needs. Some of the first things you will need include a standard operating procedure (SOP), and interagency agreements with all affected agencies. These are critical, because they not only define your role and reduce your liability, but they also help avoid the incessant turf fighting and hurt feelings that abound during large incidents.

While it sounds like a large order, in actuality, most agencies will be happy to relinquish control of a WMD event to a team established for that purpose. It's easier for them to pass the responsibility on to someone else than to worry about dealing with the consequences of a mishandled event. Make sure that all agencies stay informed during an incident and that they have roles to fill in the staging area, and you'll be fine.

Many of the things you will hash out with planning group members will involve some very serious legal and regulatory issues. Having HazMat and your state's Emergency Management Agency (EMA) on board will help you navigate the murky waters of OSHA and EPA. Other issues to consider include paid training time, overtime for incidents and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), ICS (Federal Unified Incident Command System), mandatory stress debriefings, and personnel reliability.

There are many questions to answer when planning the start of a WMD unit: What about the media? How much access should you allow them? What do you do with contaminated people who threaten to break the Contamination Control Line? Who can you call for more personnel if your unit becomes overwhelmed? Who will loan you portable toilets? Who will feed you? All excellent questions, best answered in an annex of your SOP prior to an incident.

Select Personnel

Once you've gotten things ironed out and approved, you need to select team members and get them trained. Some of the people from your planning group may not have the time or energy to expend on operations. Others may be attached to units that will have other responsibilities during a WMD event.

The people you select should be healthy, intelligent, have few collateral duties, and be willing to train. While it may sound simple to find qualified individuals, not everyone meets all of the above criteria.

To thoroughly check a prospective member's health, you'll need to require several tests. Claustrophobia is a common debilitating issue, so it is prudent to have candidates dress out in a full WMD ensemble to see on the front end if they can tolerate the close-fitting, restrictive gear. Baseline medical screens are a legal requirement, as are psychological tests for any prospective member that hails from an agency without such a requirement. Finite mental cracks routinely magnify to major fissures during incidents, so requiring a psychological screening is as much for the benefit of the prospective member as it is necessary for protecting your agency's liability.

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