Experts train Misawa on WMD preparedness
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Retired FBI agents, fire and police chiefs, former high-ranking military personnel, bomb experts and university researchers from the United States paid this northern Japan base a visit last week to lend their expertise in responding to weapons of mass destruction attacks.
In the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, where a terrorist’s weapon of choice could be a biological or chemical agent, the military is adopting a civilian model of incident-management response.
Representatives from Air Force Civil Engineering Support Agency (AFCESA) at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and Texas A&M Engineering Extension Institute, brought the Air Force Weapons of Mass Destruction Installation Training and Exercise Program to Misawa last week.
Training culminated in a 35th Fighter Wing exercise Friday involving simulated exposure to smallpox and terrorists blowing up a car carrying industrial pesticide near a physical training class on the base beach.
The teams are conducting the program at select Air Force bases around the world and recently finished training on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
The Air Force WMD program started about two years ago, was prompted in large part by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, said Maj. Kurt Lee, the only active-duty member and team leader for AFCESA.
“After Sept. 11, several of the Air Staff organizations who directed this program felt there was a need to support the installations in completing their mission in conducting WMD/terrorist attack exercises and training for that,” Lee said.
The intent is to synchronize the way civilians and military personnel would respond to such incidents since each can and likely would assist the other in the event of a chemical or biological attack, Lee said. The military has resources that could help local communities; and if a military installation were hit, surrounding jurisdictions likely would be impacted, as well.
The Texas A&M team, through federal grant dollars, provides emergency-response training to civilian communities across the United States, said Jory Grassinger, an instructor at the university’s emergency services training institute. The extension team works on an Air Force contract to support its military training program.
The Defense Department “has always had its own method of responding to incidents because they have a unique mission,” Lee said. “Really, before, there wasn’t as much interaction expected between the military and civilian responders. Now the president is mandating that we work together because the military has so many resources available.”
President Bush has mandated a national incident management system, Lee said, so that Defense Department and civilian terminology and organizational structures match.
Rather than one incident commander on scene, for example, the military will go to a unified command or group of decision-makers, like many civilian communities do already.
“The whole intent of the national incident management system is that everybody is organized the same way,” Lee said. “When support agencies outside the installation come in to support us, they know … where they fit … and we know when we show up who we report to, where we fit.”
One of the intents of the program, Lee added, is to get bases to start thinking about how they would interact with the local community, either in training for or responding to a terrorist attack. However, overseas there are challenges with “language, jurisdiction, customs, possibly willingness of the community to really recognize that this is a real threat,” he said.
Another challenge is the distance from the United States and domestic support agencies, such as the FBI.
Overseas bases need to plan for that, Lee said, figuring “it may be two days before we can get anybody to do this, how are we going to handle that in the interim? That should be part of the wing plan.”
Much of the wing at Misawa knew there was to be an exercise Friday but didn’t know the details.
Friday morning, a “fake supervisor” called up one of the dormitory managers to report that an airman did not show up for work, said Misawa spokesman Capt. John Haynes. According to that exercise scenario, emergency responders were to find the airman dead from smallpox exposure.
Senior Airman Kimberly Mahan, part of Explosive Ordnance Disposal training operations, 35th Civil Engineer Squadron, spent most of the exercise at the base beach, where EOD was sent to investigate a suspicious car that turned out to be laden with an industrial pesticide.
“We had people in chem gear and a bomb suit over that with forced air,” she said. “I think it went fairly well. It was good practice for the next time we have to do this.”
Though Air Force bases are required to have a weapons of mass destruction exercise annually, they’re not 100 percent prepared — yet — for the real thing, Lee said.
“I think across the board this is fairly new to most installations, and so they’re going through a lot of growing pains. These are very difficult, complicated scenarios; not something that most of the folks are familiar with on how to handle,” he said. “Through this program, they get better prepared.”