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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

Train the Troops

Currently, there is no national standard for WMD responders. However, most well-trained responders have at least a Hazardous Materials Technician certification under their belts. Some have HAZWOPR, a certification received after successfully completing a civilian training block for individuals tasked with remediating hazardous waste sites. COBRA training courses, which are funded through federal grants, are free to police departments. You can take them at your local EMA office. However, they are often backlogged.

If you can't afford travel expenses to go to training classes, let them come to you. Many training courses are available over the Internet. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a variety of free online courses on its Website. To learn how to retrieve evidence and information following an explosion, you may want to attend the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology post-blast training. You can peruse a list of training courses various agencies offer by visiting the Office of Justice Programs Website.

Specialized training can also be had from your local bomb squads, military units, and the Department of Energy. The majority of this training is tuition-free.

Lt. Sam Morales, a supervisor with the Los Angeles County Police WMD Unit, the first such team in the L. A. area, says, "All in all, [our] training has consisted of numerous hours and agencies." In addition to the above listed ideas, Morales' unit even went so far as to design a firearms qualification course meant to be conducted while fully dressed out in protective gear.

Acquire Equipment

While your troops are getting the mental tools they'll need to be able to safely resolve an incident and save lives, now is a good time to start accumulating the physical tools they'll need to have. This is a terrible area to skimp on, and with the availability of Federal aid for these items, let's hope you won't have to.

Necessary equipment runs the gamut from PPE (gloves, booties, suits, respirators), to team gear (detection systems, decontamination systems, communications systems), to simple items such as water coolers and whiteboards.

Having the right equipment ensures that WMD unit members will be able to handle an incident when it occurs. These suits might look silly, but one could keep you alive in the event of an emergency.

How are you going to get all this stuff there? Where will it be deployed if the weather turns inclement? This is an excellent time to pick the brains of the local HazMat team. Its members will already have a wealth of lessons learned on the topic, and can help you decide what you need, how many you need, and how to store and move them. Just keep in mind that, ultimately, this isn't a HazMat event, but a WMD one. Being able to rapidly identify yourselves in a near-riot situation will be critical.

Make sure you cover as many contingencies as possible. Will you have all the equipment available to decontaminate your duty gear safely? Will your team have everything necessary when the time comes? One personal lesson learned is the importance of chiller suits. While they may sound like an extravagance, consider the heat load of wearing a Nomex III jumpsuit, bullet-resistant vest, level A or B WMD ensemble, and an identification vest, all the while remaining very physically active.

Obtain Funding

Once you get your shopping list, start applying for grants so you can purchase these items. Coordinate requests with your agency point of contact for grant work, as well as the EMA.

The grants you'll want to consider first are called one shots, meaning they will cover 100 percent and do not have to be paid back. Other grants, called formula grants, require your unit to pay a percentage of the total.

The Department of Defense has a low-cost or no-cost shopping center called the Defense Reutilization Management Office. It is an excellent resource for everything from tents to trucks. There are restrictions on how they will allow their items to be deployed, but the creative unit leader will find ways to embrace them and still get the job done.

Don't forget to seek community support. Your local stores may be willing to donate kiddie pools, paper towels, sports drinks, and many other supplies your team will need. Peruse the phone book. You may be surprised at the specialty businesses in your own backyard. Publishing a 3x10-inch advertisement in your agency's newsletter in exchange for a trailer company's donated $15,000 trailer is a small sacrifice.

Don't Stop Training

After going through all the steps to start a WMD unit, many initially successful projects fail due to a lack of training or followthrough. This is because many commanders feel that full-scale exercises are too complicated to conduct. But training, especially on a large scale, doesn't have to be difficult.

Delegate portions of the training evolution to your unit, such as locating roleplayers and sites. Recruit other agencies' administrators to serve as referees and safety people. Ask your EMA to critique. Limit your performance objectives, and concentrate more on working as a cohesive team than on nitpicking.

When the time and space necessary for a large-scale training session aren't available, break your training up into modules. One month, focus on PPE; the next, survey gear. As an added benefit to this form of training, your troops won't become bored-or worse, complacent. Many of the skills necessary to safely negotiate a WMD event are perishable, so train as often as your members' schedule will allow, even if you just get together to sandtable.

Hopefully, the path to a working WMD Unit in your jurisdiction will be an ultimately successful one. Just remember to network and set realistic goals, and the rest will follow.


WMD Website Listings:
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology post-blast training:
Office of Justice Programs agency training:
Defense Reutilization Management Office:

Shawn Hughes is a 12-year veteran police officer and bomb technician. He is the WMD and explosives lead instructor for the company Tactical Response.

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