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Are we ready for terror?

Level A  responders make first contact with a potentially contaminated victim in the “hot zone,” leading him to decontamination pools in the “warm zone”  where he is washed down with an appropriate neutralizing agent. In real life all clothing would be removed and discarded. - Marcie Miller
Level A responders make first contact with a potentially contaminated victim in the “hot zone,” leading him to decontamination pools in the “warm zone” where he is washed down with an appropriate neutralizing agent. In real life all clothing would be removed and discarded.
— image credit: Marcie Miller

They look eerily like something from outer space, in bright blue or canary yellow puffy suits that cover and protect every inch of their bodies. The large plastic face panel quickly fogs over, obscuring the gas mask inside.

Their slow breathing sounds like something out of Star Wars — you know who we mean — and the suits constantly emit a wailing siren. They walk slowly, with their arms held stiffly out from the suits.

Their appearance may be frightening, but in the event of a bological or chemical attack, they’re the ones you’re gonna call.

First on the scene of a chemical or biological incident would be the hazmat team from Battalion 3 of the Puget Sound Federal Fire Department, stationed at Whidbey Naval Air Station.

The 60-member firefighting team is well-versed in hazmat drills, Chief Mick Lamar said. He estimated they could respond to a hazmat call in Oak Harbor in five minutes.

Lamar said the firefighters have to keep up with constantly changing threats that are a far cry from what they signed up for — fighting fires.

“Our job has changed as the world has changed,” he said.

Battalion 3 uses a system of shallow pools and plastic tarps to contain contaminated water and neutralizer, which is then diposed of properly, Lamar said.

In addition to the open decontamination unit, the base has a new system at the ready.

Lt. Patrick Amersbach, Command Emergency Manager at the base hospital, said he had been working for years to get a chemical decontamination shelter. His petition was recently granted by the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

Amersbach describes the unit as a “rapidly deployable, lightweight decontamination system designed to provide the hospital and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (NASWI) an all-weather, robust, decontamination capability.”

In other words, it’s a fancy tent. The stand-alone unit is designed to decontaminate people who are exposed to chemical agents.

It’s basically a portable shower with its own water-heating system. It catches all the water, he said, so that contaminated water doesn’t spill into the environment.

The 11-by-22-foot unit can be set up by six people in less than five minutes. It’s an all-weather system that can take gusts up to 60 mph. “It’s kind of cool, actually,” Amersbach said.

While the unit is meant for use by the base, if there was a chemical attack in Oak Harbor, for example, Amersbach said a call from the mayor to the base commander would pave the way for deployment of the unit.

Navy spokesperson Kim Martin said the Navy is an integral part of the county-wide emergency management system, and could also provide resources such as bomb-and drug-sniffing dogs and a bomb disposal unit.

“If we had a situation (in the community) we would automatically be involved,” Martin said.

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