During the last five years, fire and rescue services across the United Kingdom have been steadily improving their capability to deal with the ever-present threat of terrorism. The U.K. government has provided the financing to procure equipment and develop training for the broad range of skills needed by the modern firefighter.
To support the equipment, firefighters have been engaged in an extensive training program to provide technical skills and have participated in multiagency exercises to ensure that those skills are tested and maintained.
Following Sept. 11, terrorist attacks, there was great impetus to ensure the emergency services in the United Kingdom had the ability to cope, render humanitarian assistance and ensure emergency responders had sufficient understanding about chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear contamination — to protect their own safety while engaging at such incidents.
Police forces and ambulance services have received funding to assist in their development, but the largest investment in resources and staff so far has been injected into the U.K. Fire and Rescue Service. The fire and rescue service is using a new program called New Dimension to introduce and oversee this increase in capability; a specialist team was established across the United Kingdom to ensure its delivery.
It is worth noting the current effects on the world's climate and the associated impact that it is introducing. The United Kingdom is seeing hotter and much wetter weather. The consequences are more rural fires and more flooding. The equipment provided through the New Dimension program, in particular high-volume pumping, will have the additional benefits of increasing resilience in dealing with these climate-related incidents.
It appears that the most common technique used by terrorists is to kill and maim as many people as possible, their objectives being to increase profile, outrage and fear. Protection of the public is paramount and the New Dimension Public Mass Decontamination project, now completed, will provide a rapid deployment of protective measures to minimize where possible the effects of a CBRN attack.
New Dimension has deployed 74 incident response units, each carrying two mass-decontamination structures that can decontaminate as many as 200 individuals per hour. These units cost of $111 million. The IRUs also carry ancillary equipment such as firefighter decontamination units, disrobe and re-robe packs, pumps, water heaters, lights, hoses, gas-tight suits, and detection and monitoring equipment such as radiation dosimeters and survey meters. The structures consist of three sections for disrobing, showering and dressing, and have been designed to ensure comfort and privacy for casualties. Casualties requiring decontamination can remove their clothing underneath special lined and hooded cloaks before moving into the heated, warm-water shower units to wash with detergents. They then are given packs containing jackets, trousers, underwear and shoes. Non-ambulatory casualties can be decontaminated using a specially designed trolley system that can convey 25 stretchers per hour through the center of the tent.
The IRUs carry additional decontamination structures to decontaminate other fire and rescue service personnel in gas-tight suits at the scene.
In the event of an incident, contaminated individuals are provided with a disrobe pack. This pack allows people to put their contaminated clothing and personal items in a sealable plastic bags, which are tagged to facilitate repatriation following any decontamination. It may or may not be possible for specialist contractors to decontaminate these items. Removing contaminated clothing can remove up to 80% of contamination from affected people. Following this disrobing process, six males and six females at a time will proceed through the separated decontamination process. They will be instructed to take a three-minute warm shower; soap solution will be entrained if appropriate. After showering, they are given fresh clothing and other ancillary items and escorted to awaiting medical teams for a precautionary checkup.
There are many issues that can delay the process such as elderly people, children, babies, ethnic issues and language. It is impossible to accommodate all requirements and it should be understood that this is emergency decontamination.
Contaminated run off water from the process is collected in the base of the structure and then pumped to a 6,000-liter portable storage dam. From here, waste management contractors will arrange for its appropriate and safe disposal.
Current risk-profiling indicates that as many as 5,000 U.K. residents may be affected by a CBRN incident and any such occurrence will more than likely be focussed on one of the United Kingdom's major cities.
To enhance the capability of the IRUs and to allow them to meet these target numbers, additional disrobe (MDD) and re-robe (MDR) resilience units have been procured and strategically located across the United Kingdom (36 MDD units and 14 MDR units).
These resilience units consist of a prime mover fitted with a hook and arm lifting capability. Modified storage shipping containers carry equipment, which consist of either 1,600 disrobe packs or 1,500 re-robe packs. Additional equipment consists of a firefighter decontamination shower and portable generator-driven lighting units.
This decontamination process will be established at the incident's warm zone; U.K. firefighters have been issued new personal protective clothing to work within this area. These suits are fitted with powered respirators and do not require a breathing apparatus be worn. This makes the suits more comfortable to wear and improves communications. They also have a camel pack water dispenser.
On completion of operational duties, firefighters wearing gas-tight or powered respirator suits are decontaminated with water in a designated firefighters' shower facility.
In July 2004 the Government Office for the West Midlands carried out the largest CBRN exercise in the United Kingdom. The exercise took place in Birmingham, a major city that lies about half way between London and Manchester, at a number of locations including the National Exhibition Centre, Heartlands Accident and Emergency Hospital and West Midlands Police headquarters. It took six months of planning and was part of a region-wide program to further develop the West Midlands capability to respond to CBRN incidents. The exercise involved about 2,000 responders and 450 volunteers playing the part of casualties requiring decontamination. There were more than 40 fire service vehicles used, including three IRUs.
The casualties role-played effectively and their exuberance resulted in a very realistic panic and civil disturbance situation. After the police regained order, an inner and outer cordon was established, and the fire service deployed the decontamination structures. In extremely hot and realistic conditions, the casualties removed their clothes and put them in the provided packs. They were then assisted into the showers and finally dressed in the provided clothing prior to a medical assessment. Media interest was extensive with crews attending from all major U.K. television stations, Germany, France, Japan and Al Jazeera. A hot debrief was done immediately after the event with a structured debrief taking place several weeks later. Many lessons were learned from this exercise.
The exercise identified difficulties regarding the use of the disrobe pack, in particular understanding of what people needed to do, the language of instructions included and ease of use by the elderly or disabled. The recommended solution is that a full user evaluation of disrobe packs be undertaken and modifications implemented as necessary.
It is likely that many casualties will seek alternative treatment sources and they will appear as self-presenters at local accident and emergency sites. Given the size of fire service response and decontamination vehicles, emergency plans to allow them to deploy at hospitals need to be drafted. A national program of risk assessments of these sites will be undertaken to scope capacity to respond and support the fire service CBRN response.
Exercise Horizon identified differing levels and styles of personal protective clothing. These posed welfare, hydration and communication difficulties. Therefore, the current PPE provision will be reviewed nationally for all agencies and equipment modified if necessary. There needs to be a national, multi-agency standard in CBRN PPE developed.
The exercise proved invaluable in practicing the regions response to CBRN incidents and 28 recommendations in total were raised across the full spectrum of agencies involved, many of which have been acted upon. The incident response units, MDDs, MDRs and their associated equipment worked extremely efficiently. The extensive training programs ensured that contaminated casualties were effectively decontaminated and that firefighters were confident in both the equipment's design and capability.
This CBRN decontamination capability has been used many times in the United Kingdom over the last three years, although not at CBRN incidents. But major hazmat and white-powder incidents further extends the fire and rescue service capability to deal with the public in difficult and demanding environments.
Phil Causer is group manager of MIFireE and has worked with the U.K. Fire and Rescue Service for 29 years. His last operational role was Staffordshire's training and development officer. For the last four years, he has specialised in dealing with the effects of a CBRN attack on the United Kingdom and worked with Office of the Duputy Prime Minister to develop a dedicated response to public mass decontamination. He is now part of a small team that uses specialist contractors working with multiagencies to assist in recovery following a terrorist attack.