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Air Force Collaborates With Marines For More Effective Disaster Response

Staff Sgt. Cesar Valverde, Health Physics Technician, USAFSAM, Radiation Health Consulting (OEHH), hangs upside down on a rappelling tower, supported by rescue knots he tied himself. Staff Sgt. Valverde participated in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Chemical Biological Incident Response Force Basic Operations Course.

Staff Sgt. Cesar Valverde, Health Physics Technician, USAFSAM, Radiation Health Consulting (OEHH), hangs upside down on a rappelling tower, supported by rescue knots he tied himself. Staff Sgt. Valverde participated in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Chemical Biological Incident Response Force Basic Operations Course.

Wright-Patterson, AFB -- If a major disaster such as a terrorist Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High Explosive, or CBRNE, event occurs in a community, or a massive accident occurs at a hospital or industrial facility, specialized military teams are ready to deploy to assist overwhelmed civilian first responders.

Two of those specialized military teams are the Air Force Radiation Team and the Marine Corps' Chemical Biological Incident Response Force. The AFRAT conducts radiological surveys, sampling, and personnel monitoring for radiation exposure to advise incident commanders about radiological health risks at an incident site. The CBIRF conducts search and rescue operations, extracts people from contaminated areas, decontaminates people who have been exposed to chemical or biological agents, provides first responder medical treatment, and collects chemical and biological samples.

Both groups are continuously poised to support the United States Northern Command's CBNRE Consequence Management Reaction Force.

Since both the AFRAT and the CBIRF may have to respond jointly to these disasters, two members of the AFRAT attended the Marine's CBIRF Basic Operations Course to qualify for and develop a deeper understanding of CBIRF operations. Capt. Eric Clinton, Chief of Radioanalytical Operations, Air Force Research Laboratory, 711th Human Performance Wing, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Radiation Health Branch, at Brooks City-Base, Texas, and Staff Sgt. Cesar Valverde, Health Physics Technician, USAFSAM, Radiation Health Consulting, became the first Airmen to complete the grueling three-week CBOC course.

Capt. Clinton said he gained a lot of insight into how the AFRAT can most effectively integrate with the CBIRF operations. "Knowing what they do and being able to speak their language will help us to more effectively augment each other's capabilities," he explained.

The CBOC is the entry-level training course for all CBIRF Marines and Sailors. Much like every Marine is qualified with a rifle, all CBIRF operators are taught how to extract and decontaminate victims from devastated areas following an incident.

The course included lectures on a wide range of topics, including the Incident Command System, toxic industrial chemicals and materials, chemical and biological sampling, confined space and trench awareness, first responder emergency medicine, and hazardous material awareness and operations. Capt. Clinton said the lectures were very informative but the biggest challenges were the unique physical aspects of the course.

CBOC trainees receive confined space confidence training, conducting rescue and escape operations in simulated collapsed structures while in full chemical protective suits and respirators. While training in one of the most demanding of confined space environments, Capt. Clinton and Staff Sgt. Valverde wore blacked-out eyepieces on their respirator gas masks, effectively rendering them blind to mimic zero visibility.

"That training was physically demanding," said Capt. Clinton. "We were crawling on our hands and knees with a buddy. We were taught certain search patterns to make sure the floors we were crawling on were stable. You have on a lot of clothes so it is getting really warm. You wear a gas mask which if you turn the wrong way, you cut off your air supply because of the filter. You cannot see where you are going. They are yelling at you in the middle of whatever you are doing. They play rock music in the background to add extra confusion. All this makes communication with your partner very difficult."

CBOC trainees also had to rappel down a 60-foot tower to learn the basics of high-angle rescue. Capt Clinton said, "We pretty much descended upside down for a short while to clear a deck. Then we descended about 50 feet in our rappelling gear. We did not have a wall to push off of and had to lower ourselves down. We had to tie about 14 different knots and use many of them on the ropes during our rappel down the tower. You had to be pretty confident in your knot-tying ability, since the CBOC instructors' mantra is, 'You tie it, you ride it'."

As the first Airmen now qualified as a CBIRF operators, Capt. Clinton and Staff Sgt. Valverde are looking forward to further training opportunities with CBIRF. In addition to their AFRAT duties, Capt. Clinton and Staff Sgt. Valverde may be called upon to assist with CBIRF search and rescue operations should a real world incident occur.

Capt. Clinton remarked that other members of AFRAT would likely attend future CBOCs.

"AFRAT and CBIRF prepare for two important aspects of the same mission," he said. We focus on radiation health and safety and they focus on search and rescue. With a large incident, CBIRF will need to work under the assumption that they will encounter radiological hazards so this reciprocity is good for the entire CBRNE response concept."

"AFRAT is the Department of Defenses' radiation health expert so integration with and coordination of assets with CBIRF means that the Marines and Sailors can operate with increased effectiveness in a radiological environment," Capt. Clinton continued. "The AFRAT can bring all of its radiation protection expertise and capability to the CBIRF and keep them 'in the fight' longer and with greater safety."