Det. Mark Seibel of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says that in some cases agencies have gotten ahead of themselves when it comes to WMD response. Seibel, who was tasked with establishing the LASD's WMD response and training programs back in the 1990s, says too often agencies contact him looking for easy answers to WMD response and they ask the wrong questions.
"A lot of them are getting grant money to spend on PPE, and they want to know what to buy," Seibel says. "But that's putting the cart before the horse. The first thing you have to determine is what is your mission. They want a two-minute answer on what suits to buy, but we end up having a two-hour conversation on mission, training, and then equipment."
Any WMD incident in an American city is likely to require law enforcement to assume a number of different missions. Tactical units are likely to go into the hot zone with fire department hazardous material (HazMat) and EMS personnel to provide force protection against "two-legged threats" and secondary devices; patrol officers will be used in the warm zone to guard decontamination teams and maintain public order and in the cold zone for perimeter control; finally, specially trained officers will investigate and collect evidence for prosecuting the perpetrators.
Each of these different missions requires different equipment and training. "If you skip that training portion, the mission capability and the equipment are nothing," Seibel says. "And if you don't know what you're doing with PPE, you can get people killed."
Like grant money for PPE and other equipment, training has been made available by the federal government and other sources. And many agencies have been taking advantage of it.
Robert Scarabino is a WMD response instructor with the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training (NCBRT) at Louisiana State University. The NCBRT is a federally funded public safety training program that emphasizes WMD response, and since 9/11, Scarabino has taught classes to agencies in all 50 states and in several territories. But he worries that some agencies have skipped training as part of their WMD preparedness.
"Many of them that procured the equipment got the training, too," Scarabino says. "But others bought the equipment and didn't take the training."
Scarabino also says there's been a marked drop in class attendance for his programs since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. "Attendance petered off about 2004," he says.
One of the reasons that agencies are more complacent about WMD training now than immediately after 9/11 is the economics of the issue. Training costs money and pulls officers off the line. Another reason that WMD training is unpopular at many agencies is that it's not by any means a pleasant thing to do.
"Historically police see respirators and PPE as a burden," says James Wilcox, global director of marketing and product management for Avon Protection Systems. "Historically, PPE has not been designed for them; it's been a leftover from another market."
Avon Protection and other PPE manufacturers have been making great strides in improving the gear and making it easier to use and more comfortable for officers. "We show them newer designs where these issues have been resolved," says Wilcox, explaining that today's PPE is much more comfortable and suited to law enforcement operations than it was even just five years ago.
Unfortunately, many American law enforcement agencies acquired their WMD gear in the years immediately after 9/11 before it was improved. And that makes it harder for their officers to train and possibly dangerous for them to wear the gear in an actual incident. This is especially true if the equipment has not been maintained.