The challenges of EOD work in a CBRNe environment
By Cpt. Dirk Gunst
Dark clouds gather above the Belgian Capital on Tuesday, 22 March 2016, when two bomb attacks occur at rush hour. Brussels is shaking on its foundations while all the police and emergency units work overtime to get the situation under control. It was a sad day for the country but, in the meantime, a wake-up call for those in charge of emergency planning. The Belgian EOD Group (DOVO/SEDEE1) provides assistance to bombing sites and proceeds to crime scene investigations, one of the unit’s mandatory tasks. Although the unit is capable of performing these tasks at any time, nothing prepares the operator technically for this type of disaster where operators are deployed to a crime scene where people have died. Soon after the bombings, the EOD Group realized that the local authorities were fortunate that the events were not CBRN-linked cases but rather classic bombing incidents. Nevertheless, thinking about the way ahead and how to act and prepare amidst a CBRNe attack was necessary.
Preparing the EOD response
In general, an EOD team approaches any situation with a multilevel approach, absorbing as much information as necessary to be aware of the situation. Situational awareness during a CBRNe event is even more critical. You will arrive in a much more chaotic and complicated situation with chaos reigning the city and its surroundings. A police corps that will look at the HazMat services, including EOD, will be requested to solve what is going on and to find the best solutions moving forward.
The first moments after an explosion are crucial, and what has been seen or heard must be communicated quickly, cohesively, and clearly. Crucial to the EOD response, and certainly in a CBRNe context, is the description of the story and the reasons why the service is called to provide support in those specific circumstances. It is normal that the whole context evolves as time goes by with more information becoming available, but somehow this has to get to the EOD team as soon as possible for two main reasons: firstly, in order to understand the bigger picture; and secondly, to prepare the correct technical approach. CBRN EOD operators, in general, are working under very specific roles which sometimes overlap in a specific layer of responders. Besides being an EOD operator, they also have a set of particular skills enabling them to operate in a CBRNe environment as well. Their expertise and know-how in executing EOD tasks in the CBRNe hot zones are of great value to the EOD Senior Team Leaders in charge of the response. Especially in the Belgian EOD Group, where not all EOD personnel have this expertise, and only a selected group can perform these tasks.
The recruitment process consists of some practical tests but lies mainly within the motivation of enlarging the level of expertise in our job. During an 8-week cycle, an operator is trained to become a CBRN EOD operator. Then, step by step, the EOD and CBRN worlds collide and result in a new mindset, not only to think about dealing with EOD problems while keeping in mind the CBRN obstacles that can be encountered along the way. The first week of courses focuses on the basics, i.e., how to operate safely in personal protective equipment. At that point, the instructor’s biggest challenge is to get the operator’s focus on his EOD work, which is also adapted to the current and changing threats, while paying attention to the CBRN rules. The first moments are the toughest due to different aspects of either EOD or CBRN being combined in a CBRN- EOD task. New CBRN/ EOD operators in the course are struggling with the additional charge of the CBRN protection and find it harder to perform the actual EOD work. Learning about the personal protective equipment as SCBA, gas-tight suite… opens a whole new world for most and shines a different light on the classic EOD tasks. Throughout the first week, we can witness significant progress, and by the end of the introductory course, the operators have already got familiar with the extra CBRN layer and are ready to go to the next phase, i.e., “teamwork.” During the following four weeks, the operators are prepared to work in teams of two or three operators in a more tactical situation with a cold, warm and hot zone. In this phase, the CBRN/ EOD scenarios will become more complex, and consecutive teams will be sent into the hot zone to complete the task. At this time, preparing a handover of the scene is crucial. Whether the information is exchanged in the hot, warm, or cold zone, the operator in charge, the senior team leader, has to ensure that the maximum of information regarding the situation is passed on accurately between the different teams. Considering that the logistical footprint of a CBRN/ EOD task will be huge, preparations have to be made to ensure that the present teams on the field can complete the intervention.
Supporting the police
Finally, the Belgian CBRN/ EOD team will be deployed as a seven-operator team and act as experts when needed. The main task will be to provide local authorities, i.e., decision-makers, with advice on how to perform their CBRN/ EOD duties on the field. In this role, the team has a big responsibility on the scene. Therefore, the Team Leader will keep an eye on the whole situation, trying to figure out what answers (to be provided by the CBRN EOD team), how the team needs to respond are required, and how his team will come up with a technical solution to solve the CBRN/ EOD issue. Although the EOD issues are mainly discussed within the team, in some situations, other experts can inject crucial expertise and, thus, the EOD procedures are subject to change. When cooperating with other services, it is always essential to know what services are present and what their expertise are. Especially the decon team, the medical support, and the CBRN Detection teams need to be close so that communication can take place and a connection can be made as soon as possible. Throughout the incident, communication is crucial to success. Although it is difficult to pass on information during a CBRNe incident while everybody is wearing protection, all players have to be creative and find a way to communicate at the right time and in the right spot. The challenge I see is that, together with other emergency services, all need to be looking at the bigger picture and try to find the real problem through the chaos. Each piece that can be filtered will lead to solving the puzzle, always maintaining a high level of expertise. Only a good mixture of knowledge, skills, and continued practice, shared during table-top- and field exercises, will lead to a desirable level of readiness. Individual and team efforts have to be combined with scenarios that are approached from different angles. Only by constantly learning and practicing, a CBRN/ EOD operator will keep the knowledge and skills to be able to stay at the highest level possible.
Cpt. Dirk Gunst joined the Belgian EOD Group in 1999 and worked in the POELKAPELLE and MEERDAAL Barracks. He is the Coy Commander of the POELKAPELLE Barracks and is responsible for the disposal of the toxic ammunition from the First World War. The area of responsibility is near the old trenches and covers an area in West-Flanders where each year 200 tons of shells are found. Cpt. Dirk GUNST is also a CBRN EOD subject matter expert. He provides the Belgian EOD Group Commanding Officer advice on the specific topic of performing EOD work in a CBRNe environment. He participated on developing the CBRN EOD procedures for the unit. Within a team the expertise of handling of old chemical weapons (leftovers from the First World War) has provided crucial knowledge in working on toxic ammunition and the use of personal protective equipment. Cpt. Dirk GUNST is member of different national working groups on CBRNe topics.