NATO Decon Procedures

By Mr. Ludwig De Meersman, Fire Supervisor, Fire & Emergency Services, NATO

On the radio, news are about the fourth Covid-19 wave, and how to keep this one under control. The positive side of this pandemic episode is that we were able to take some time, as business as usual slowed down, to re-organize and learn from this situation what we could apply on CBRNe interventions.

Therefore, in this decontamination article I would like to share with you the problems and challenges encountered, and the solutions we found.

To start, you need to understand that the service we provide is not like the one provided by Fire HAZMAT teams that intervene on industrial scale leaks, nor is our service a military CBRNe unit patrolling on the field. Our major focus is on detection, classification or identification of unknown parcels or suspicious packages, powders and so on, found in sensitive or public areas within the NATO headquarters.

Decontamination of CBRNe operators

The most frequent type of decontamination used is our CBRNe operator decontamination. The operator, as part of the sampling-identification team, needs to remove the source and neutralize any contamination at that location. Here, we find already the first challenge: this need to be done taking into consideration the preservation of forensic evidence. Spraying a chlorine solution over a letter may neutralize the agent, but it will also destroy any possible chance for police to investigate. The sampling and decontamination of the affected area is executed in separate steps.

To avoid technically difficult decontamination procedures during this identification and sampling phase, the first necessity is to avoid contaminating yourself. This can be achieved by using the minimal amount of contact possible, for example by using instruments like tweezers and scissors. When gloves get contaminated, the decontamination is a physical procedure: the operators are wearing multiple layers of nitrile gloves (up to four layers); if there is suspected contact, they can simply remove a layer.

If a personal contamination occurs, the operator can decontaminate using either an adsorbent glove or chemical pads, or he can use a chlorine solution spray before the adsorbent is applied. This depends on the amount and on the nature of the spill on the operator. In the past, we used also Fuller’s Earth that, however, implied a serious problem: after using a powder on the entire area, we could not see anymore the difference between our own decontamination powder and the ‘target’.

In normal operations, the CBRNe operator leaves the area that he decontaminated with a chlorine solution and performs a first self-decontamination by removing his outer gloves (Nitrill) and rinsing his feet and hands in a water-chlorine solution. He can then proceed with a sample box to a decontamination area for the second phase of decontamination: again, feet and hands are treated, and after that an assisted donning procedure follows. The last step in this second phase is the verification of any residue (detection according to the agent found). If everything results to be clear, the operator can remove his facemask, while if traces are detected, a wet decontamination procedure starts. The operator keeps his facemask on until the end of this phase.

In these types of intervention, waste management is quite simple as the amount of liquids used are minimal. However, they must be collected and removed through specialised waste treatment facilities. The challenge of decontamination is more demanding when it involves sensitive equipment; therefore, all CBRNe equipment used in these type of interventions is water-resistant. Decontamination with soaked pads and sprays is conducted before putting the equipment operational again.

Decontamination of bystanders and victims

In the previous scenario, no contaminated person or victim were involved. In case this situation occurs, with a contaminated person or victim, the CBRNe team leader has a specific protocol to follow in order to first assess if the CBRNe incident is related to the victim’s signs and symptoms. If so, additional resources are necessary.

The greatest challenge for the emergency services is to provide the specific results stemming from the CBRNe operators' evaluation as fast as possible, in order to know ASAP what type of emergency we are dealing with. At the same time - and at the same pace- a further challenge is to organize a parallel service to extract victims for decontamination and, possibly, for the specialised CBRNe medical care. Furthermore, the emergency services have to provide escort for bystanders or possibly contaminated people to the waiting and decontamination areas, while preventing interactions between individuals. All of this needs manpower- not only highly trained CBRNE operators , but also personnel who can help and guide the contaminated people towards the designated areas. In the past, this crowd control seemed very difficult: how can you identify someone that was possibly contaminated? The solution we found to work easily is using security strips. Security officers carry them around, so they are available immediately and in large amount. Therefore, any person carrying just one security strip at his wrist is a person to be considered possibly contaminated. A second strip is added after decontamination, therefore: 2 strips = decontaminated. This control is necessary as we have encountered that human behaviour makes it sometimes difficult to persuade individuals that decontamination is needed, especially if they do not have signs of any illness.

The decontamination of possibly contaminated people occurs in several steps. First of all, the contaminated people, that are able to walk and have no severe wounds or symptoms are given a decon-set containing spare clothings and facemask (PPE2). They are asked to wash hand and face, place facemask and change clothes. Each person’s belongings are placed into plastic bags, with ‘track & trace’. After this first step, wet decontamination is provided. This first self-decon is applied to save time, as preparing a wet set-up for decon of 100+ persons is inevitably time consuming.

The most difficult part is medical assistance within CBRNe intervention. We have specialised CBRNe medical operators, but even with the support of emergency medical services and specialised CBRNe medical support the fast extraction, decontamination and treatment keeps being a challenge for our services. We provide fast victim decontamination using water permeable stretchers and using local sportshowers facilities in order to have victims receiving the needed treatment in the shortest possible time.

The challenge in these types of situation lies for us in the fast surge on manpower requirements and in the management of sensitive equipment that might be placed in the personal belongings: for example , weapons of military personnel, cell phones and access cards. For what concern the wastewater management, large amounts of wastewater can be buffered into the buildings waste tanks. It is possible to isolate the contaminated fluid, by shutting down pumping facilities that connect to the public waste water system.

Working in an international organisation like NATO, means working where high level meetings are taking place on a regular basis. Some of these meetings require additional security measures, also from the CBRNe point of view, like providing CBRNe protection -this even before the (V)VIP arrival at the meeting's facilities. We are prepared for fast vehicle decon. In many cases, (V)VIPs' vehicles have extra filters onboard, therefore they can be considered well protected; but in some cases there could be the need to cut off the ventilation and put on the CBRNe escape hoods. The aim of the fast vehicle decon is to provide the possibility to decon the outside of the vehicle, and to have a minor to none affect on the meetings. An extra decon of the interior of the vehicle can occur while the meeting is in place. For this purpose, aerosol spray dispensers are available. A CBRNe detection sweep is always done after each decontamination.

At the meeting facilities, a CBRNe team is always on stand-by. In this context, the challenge lies more in the inter-operability than on technical difficulties: each close protection unit has different SOP’s and equipment for protecting their (V)VIP. In general, the CBRN team has decontamination kits available, as in most cases the close protection forces will keep ‘hands’ on their (V)VIP. For this and other types of intervention, separate areas are predetermined, with logistics set nearby to reduce the time needed for deployment.


Each of these points can be discussed further into depth. As it happens within other disciplines in emergency services, we train relentlessly on several scenarios, and each intervention allows us to learn new solutions and new applications for our toolsets, discovering also new challenges.

CBRNe interventions, and more specifically the decontamination, require a large investment in manpower and in trainings. Further ‘helping’ hands are needed in case of multiple casualty and bystanders decon, but in this case, this extra personnel does not need to be trained to the full CBRNe operator level.

As we work in a multi-national environment with high level meetings, the stakeholders involved are always changing, adding an extra challenge to the work of our team: the close protection and non-local security forces need to be aware of our presence and informed of our actions and procedures, to be ready to cooperate in case sudden decontamination requirements. This represents always a challenge also in term of international communications -a challenge that requires specific skills.


De Meersman Ludwig. Education in biotechnologies, chemistry and water- and air purification. Followed by a military career as NCO in the Belgian army (combat unit) and from there to City firefighters Ghent (Belgium). In 2009 I made the switch to NATO’s HQ in Brussels and has been involved in the CBRN response for the HQ since. In my spare time active as outdoor enthusiast; running, rock climbing, winter pulka trekkings.