Expert Commentary

Saving lives and property during and after a CBRN event

Published on 17 December 2008

The speed and efficiency of your response to any CRBN incident are critical to its success
The speed and efficiency of CBRN response are critical to its success

Michael Peters and John Breedlove of Intelagard, Inc., industry leaders in CBRN decontamination and containment and fire suppression, explain how best to prepare for and respond to a CBRN incident.

"CBRN responders, you must honestly assess your current capabilities to determine what is needed to strengthen the effective response to a CBRN incident. Your initial response will have a dramatic impact on the final outcome. Consider collateral and residual damage factors.

Continue to develop or improve capabilities over time following a defined plan. Many of the technologies used in response to an incident may also be used as every day tools.

The first signs of a CBRN event may be discovered via hindsight. Indications may be subtle or hard to separate from normal "background" levels. "Eyes on the street" such as doctors, businessmen, public transportation workers and teachers should be trained to look for and report signs of a possible incident.

As soon as an incident is recognized, response time and effectiveness are critical. Initial actions for maximum response efficiency can lessen the need for remediation later. Recognize and plan for the impacts of an imprecise response - and remember to never assume that a situation is safe.

Chemical weapons are simple to make and deploy. Typically, a limited area is affected, yet impacts may be devastating. Biological threats may be manmade, such as the 2001 anthrax mailings in the US, or naturally occurring, such as avian flu or tuberculosis. Dirty bombs (Radiological Dispersion Devices, or RDD) may not include an explosive device. There may be no bang or any other obvious clue that a release has even taken place. Discovery may be after-the-fact, when people exhibit symptoms or with remote detection monitors.

The technology and materials for dirty bombs and improvised nuclear devices are not hard to acquire. While a radiological attack may be primarily economic, contamination of historic or symbolic targets can generate significant psychological impacts along with related terror and panic. A plan of recovery is critical for symbolic, historic, governmental or financial targets where demolition and abandonment are not viable options.

Take action now. Demystify the process. Make event drills as common as fire drills, to eliminate terror as a factor. Focus on an effective response to maximize recovery while minimizing long term damage (including economic and psychological). Employ tools for CBRN recovery that may be used for additional applications while waiting for that day. The more frequent the use, the better trained personnel will be for effective response.


Consider your resources - do you have enough responders who are properly trained to cope with CRBN emergencies?
Consider your resources - do you have enough CRBN-trained responders?


Emergency responders should consider a number of alternate routes to any locale in case critical infrastructure is damaged.  Local responders trained on pre-positioned equipment may provide the most effective and timely response. Consider the resources that you have that are functional and available during planning exercises.

There may be abandoned vehicles, broken gas and water mains, uncontrolled fires, downed power lines, impassable roads, frantic parents trying to find children, scared children looking for parents and more at the scene of an incident. Do you have an adequate number of trained responders with resources to deal with these factors?

Civilian responders should know how to shut off air intake systems in the buildings where they work and live, where their children go to school, and possibly where they shop to keep from drawing contaminated air into the building, and making the situation much worse.

What plans are in place in case water systems fail or become contaminated? Contaminated water can't be used to fight fire without spreading contamination. How will you know if the water is safe? What's the plan if water can't be used? Who knows the flow pattern of storm water drain systems? If the water is contaminated, what impact may it have? What's the plan to stop or divert the flow of contaminated water? How are you going to handle contaminated waste, and where are you going to dispose of it? Who is responsible for the waste stream and impacts?

More citizens than just traditional first responders should be trained. Consider including teachers, transportation workers, civic leaders, and others. Equip responders in advance, which may include personal protective equipment in high-risk areas. Responders must be able to immediately respond to the initial incident with pre-positioned equipment and supplies, and be well trained. Have secondary response capabilities available to recover impacted areas to limit economic damage. Establish personnel to deal with human impacts (injured and dead), other personnel to deal with impacted physical locations to minimize economic impact, and another group to minimize psychological impacts (to deal with panic, help connect parents with children, know where the injured have been transported, and effect rumor control).

Advanced familiarity with response tools is critical. Make them every day tools so when emotions are intensified, rather than paralysis, people will take action. Prepare for panic, which may exacerbate the problem and make contamination control more difficult. Take charge and have a viable, effective plan.

Have means ready to identify contaminant(s), including levels and extent. Identify the contaminated area, control the spread, and keep responders safe. Transport the injured and dead. Pre-identify hospitals and morgues, and consider transportation options if the infrastructure is down or if individuals, alive and dead, are contaminated. Don't make the situation worse. For example, an RDD spreads radiological contaminants. While tacking the contaminants in place is required, using available materials such as paint or oil to tack contaminants in place will make recovery more difficult. Not only is the area still contaminated, now you have to remove the paint or oil as well.

Consider a combined solution for immediate deployment. A well chosen decontaminant may be used for both chemical and biological agents and is benign to equipment, PPE and the environment. Use the same solution for industrial accidents, natural biological events (H5N1, TB, staph infections etc.), and other domestic applications. That makes the solution more broad spectrum, and provides opportunities for hands on training.

Keep up with evolving CBRN weapons. Decontaminants must be designed to remediate sophisticated weaponized agents as well as common materials, such as mold and bacteria, to make the solution more cost effective. It also allows for cross training and increased familiarity with technology, equipment and procedures.

Utilize the same deployment systems for CBRN events, fire suppression, mold remediation, vapor suppression and HAZMAT response. Deployment systems such as those offered by Intelagard are scaleable and economical, and can be used for all of these applications and more. The more applications for the deployment system, the more economical it becomes and the more training opportunities present themselves.

Choose scalable deployment systems to stretch between large- and small-scale hazmat and CBRN applications
Choose scalable deployment systems to stretch between large- and small-scale hazmat and CBRN applications


What resources do you already have? What could be pressed into service in an emergency? Recovery of radiologically contaminated extraction solutions can be completed by using modified everyday equipment. It can be truck mounted, using manifolds for large recovery operations, or smaller systems for localized recovery.

Commercial evaporation units are available for radiological waste concentration. Grouting concentrated radiological waste is an economical approach for disposal. Commercially available waste treatment equipment may be utilized in emergency situations for waste handling. This is an identifiable, existing resource which may be repurposed in an emergency. A cement mixer might also be used. You may have more resources than you realize. All of these items must be integrated into a cohesive plan prior to an actual event.

While it is tempting to save the budget, chances are good that your responsibility is to save lives and property. Using multi-functional deployment systems and decontamination solutions appropriate for multiple purposes is economical AND will provide you with the tools you need to save lives and property. Being caught unprepared will cost much more in terms of lives and property than preparation ever will. The choice is yours. Choose wisely.

Michael Peters & John Breedlove - Intelagard, Inc.

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