News: Tech escort teams train to collect HAZMAT samples
Story by Sgt. Mark Miranda
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – Climbing stairways through a dark, dusty building while wearing a hazardous material protection suit and breathing through a rubber mask is few people's idea of a good time. When the mission is to find material used to make weapons of mass destruction, even less so. At the Regensberg training site on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, it's just another day on the job for soldiers of the 9th Chemical Company, 110th Chemical Battalion.
Operation Rolling Thunder, Oct. 15-17, provided a situational training exercise for the chemical company’s tech escort teams. These elements handle hazardous material sampling, transportation, mission recovery and decontamination. Technical escort has been a part of the Army's mission since World War II, when they were used for transfer of chemical weapons and demilitarization of chemical weapons.
“Ultimately when a lab of something is found, we’re the ones who go in and ensure it’s safe to enter the site. Explosive ordnance disposal goes in with us, and makes sure it’s not booby-trapped,” said 1st Lt. Brett Kirby, a technical escort team leader, 9th Chem. Co., 110th Chem. Bn. “We look at the location and report what we find. We take small samples of it, make sure it’s safe to handle before we hand it off to whichever government agency has an interest in the location.”
Soldiers trained in chemical, biological, radiological/nuclear and explosives operations make up the response teams, which are augmented by explosive ordnance disposal specialists to execute the tech escort missions.
“Tech escort skills include HAZMAT remediation, disabling, sampling, identification and escorting,” said Staff Sgt. Oladapo Ogungbayi, decontamination team leader, 9th Chem. Company.
After the tech escort teams set up their gear, they were ready to investigate the target facility for two different training scenarios. Each team could encounter either a simulated chemical lab or one that was set up as a biological weapon lab.
“We always have at least a little intel before we go onto a site,” Ogungbayi said. “When possible, we’ll look at reports about symptoms exhibited by those exposed to the hazard; so we go in to confirm or deny the claims of what is reported to be there.”
The soldiers had to assess, sample and package any hazardous material. They then had to draw up diagrams of the room or target facility, make a list of what’s in the room with notes on anything unusual found, then photograph and take samples of suspected hazardous material.
Each team member takes care to properly execute their role. The materials must be gathered correctly in order for the samples to be admissible as evidence, should the individuals responsible be captured and sent to trial.
“When one sample is handed off, another is kept with the unit, so we can report to the combatant commander in the area of operations and say ‘Sir, this needs laboratory confirmation; our presumptive analysis says that it is X, Y or Z – so you’ll want to start looking for other labs in the area,’” Kirby said. “We’ll report what indicators we have about where the weapon-builders are getting materials, what to be on the lookout for, and indicators the enemy is trying to make something big, something that can hurt people,” Kirby said.
One soldier shared his view of what a tech escort service member does.
“You come in and see glassware, condensation tubes, distillation equipment, heating plates. pumps, a drum – you think ‘chemical lab,’” said Spc. Matthew Mullinex, 9th Chem. Company. “A lot of times if you don’t see the final product or end result that the ‘cooks’ are trying to make, hopefully somewhere it’s annotated in documents or notes at the site.”
“When the team comes up here, in addition to taking the samples, they’ll call back [to the rest of the team] with their finds as they’re looking around,” Mullinex said. “We’ve got computer systems we bring to the field with us, you punch in what the team is finding at the site and it will put out a list of possible compounds. It helps narrow things down.”
Soldiers on a tech escort team often have more advanced CBRNE training than a typical hazardous response team. The course for soldiers on technical escort teams is taught at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
“There’s a long list of specialized training that the members get, for example advanced chem/bio courses given at the school in Dugway, Utah,” said Staff Sgt. Phillip Ellis, Chemical Response Team Three, 9th Chem. Company.“They show how to make [hazardous materials], how to recognize them, how to take samples of chemical and biological targets.”
The tech escort course classes range from academic studies such as learning permeation rates of certain hazardous materials, to hands-on exercises like getting into Level B containment suits.
Technical escort is a complex mission with many possible real-world scenarios. Soldiers spoke of reacting to anthrax attacks, derailed train cars spilling toxic contents and wartime threats.
The teams in training saw immediate relevancy to their military occupations.
“Often in training you can never really get close to combat conditions,” Kirby said. “This training is more realistic and closer to the actual event. This is where we work our skill sets,” Kirby said. “We also use it to develop our standard operating procedures.”