Since leaving USARNORTH and starting Watchtower Defense, it has become very aware I participated in a program designed to defeat threat at its foundation but hardly touched the reality HAZMAT Technicians are faced with in the field. In so many ways, through true terrorism-related responses we’ve conducted under Federal contract, I have learned the standards to which I held each WMD-CST simply do not exist.
Chain of Custody
I used to issue (what I thought were) well-earned No-Go’s to very hard working CST Survey Teams for “violating” chain-of-custody principles. During the aforementioned responses we extracted, overpacked, and submitted as evidence illicit materials worth tens of millions of dollars on the black market. The apprehended individuals were part of a US-recognized terror organization and each earned life sentences.
In each of these cases as the HAZMAT entry team, we never started a chain-of-custody. When we discussed this with the investigatory lead, he was adamant we didn’t need to provide any paperwork to support his case – and certainly not a chain-of-custody. I’m going to guess he was right being that each of the perpetrators will spend the remainder of their days in prison.
As a CST Evaluation Chief, I checked my watch against the 90 minutes it took for a WMD-CST to respond, occupy, and make entry. Being the HAZMAT Team Chief for Watchtower Defense while working the Ebola Crisis of 2014 and three extremely high profile illicit materials cases, I cannot begin to comprehend the complete irrelevance of time during a real-world HAZMAT event. Simply, other than to a Survey Team Leader establishing a step-off time hack, time does not matter.
One who has never had the pleasure of making Level A entries will never understand the importance of research, communication, and preparation required of every single member of a HAZMAT Team. Under no circumstances should a time restriction be placed on a CST working in an atmosphere that could very well present them with life-altering circumstances. To rob anyone of an ounce of preparation in the name of requiring an entry is extremely shortsighted and generates a system of failure where it simply does not exist.
In every response scenario, be it our role as the operational lead during the Ebola Crisis in 2014 or a confiscation of illicit materials being smuggled across the US Border, our ETA has always been the lead topic of discussion until we got boots on the ground. As a Division Chief at CSTA, I always required WMD-CSTs to push an ADVON out the door as soon as humanly possible. In many cases this push met significant resistance and – sometimes – with good reason. However, in our response experience for both our government and commercial clients, ‘when can you get here?’ has always been the very first question during an emergency.
Placing this requirement on WMD-CSTs deploying to one of our ARNORTH CLT or TPE evolutions was a reality that deserves attention. Further, it’s a reality we ask our WMD-CST customers to train for now even as a response training contractor. The requirement for a Rapid Response Force deploying within a few minutes is a reality and should certainly be addressed in a monthly or quarterly training event.
How? It’s as simple as having two of your junior NCOs deploy 2-3 hours ahead of the remainder of the team. Create information requirements not normally associated with their job descriptions and ensure the rest of the team (and perhaps the entirety of the CST community) receives those critical pieces of information. Operationally, ensure the ‘left behind’ portion of the team is managing the response from afar or while enroute. If nothing else, as a commander, you will certainly find both weaknesses and strengths in your team.
Time In = Time Out
The NFPA 472 is a great guideline but in no way does it dictate how any response organization manages HAZMAT Operations. The time-on-target is dictated by the CST Commander and absolutely no one else. For reference, please be sure to read the 29CFR1910.120 and the aforementioned NFPA guideline. There may be situations when an Incident Commander requires supporting response agencies to abide by the NFPA guideline, but to assume they would dictate to you the rest requirements of your team is completely arbitrary guesswork.
In July of 2014 we removed $1.6M of illicit contraband where the ambient air temperature was 108F and the temperature inside of the confined space was 123F. It took us seven (7) 90-minute entries to complete the operation and – during breaks – we rehydrated and had chow. Some of our breaks were 20 minutes while others lasted for an hour. Could you imagine us telling our customer we had to rest for 90 minutes or more during our entries? We would have been asked to leave. And the next training manager – be them ARNORTH or otherwise – that tells you Time In = Time Out should also be asked to leave. Simply, it isn’t in the same ballpark as reality.
On the flip side of that, between our last Ebola remediation entries, we rested long enough to have dinner and take a snooze. As a leader, get your survey folks what they need to rest and rehydrate. Trust your people, trust your leadership, and march onward.
Sifting Through the Minutiae
Lastly, I’d like to address the mole hills we put before the CST Command Staff. When we found a team was headed towards excellence, we often spent time addressing chock blocks on vehicles not being in place, marking communications lines as a trip hazard, and the dreaded man down emergency. While all are important and probably have their place in a TPE write-up, having them become showstoppers while presenting the CST with a scenario killing hundreds of civilians is revealing of the experience you’re receiving from your training/evaluation team.
I appreciate the time I spent as a CSTA Division Chief in Regions 7, 8, 9, and 10. We had some excellent venues and put on some fantastic training events with some awesome WMD-CSTs. Simply, I wish I knew then what I know now. We would have turned the WMD Response industry upside down!
Our industry is filled with extremely proficient technicians who truly care about America, our allies, our aggressive pursuit in the offense against terrorism, our defensive stance against the asymmetrical use of chemical weapons, and the spread of infectious diseases. Of course, there are those amongst us who are simply hanging around for a paycheck just as there are in every area of the professional living space. But generally – even specifically – you will find highly trained professionals everywhere you look in the Emergency Response industry.
It is no different here at Watchtower Defense. Our specialties are training services and devices which are both backed by decades of experience in a hot zone. In addition, we are all currently active technicians in CBRN, HAZMAT, and Explosives response.
Just since the last quarter of 2014, we have responded to – and performed many hours of operations in – major national-level events including the Ebola crises and the largest methamphetamines discovery in recent history. As training professionals, we tap into this experience to write complex training programs for our peers that fill our ranks. As response professionals, we use these operations to further enhance our capabilities providing an efficient, swift response anywhere in the world.
At Watchtower Defense, we don’t write response protocols from our desks in hopes our customers can relate.
We Are Responders.
We Are Active Technicians.
We Are Watchtower Defense.
Since starting Watchtower Defense I have learned some invaluable lessons. While I have attended some rockstar preparatory training at Jacksonville State and Troy University, nothing could have ever prepared me for life as a business owner. It seems as if every time we move a muscle I learn something new. That’s healthy and I appreciate the ‘frustration’ of learning something new every day, but the reality is some business have closed their doors over these ‘frustrations’. In the end I hope you’ll see these ‘frustrations’ were actually invaluable lessons I could have learned anywhere else but at the reins of a growing, thriving small business.
– Never trust anyone who already knows the source of their next meal
I have had so many people step up to the plate offering to help me out since starting Watchtower Defense. A former boss told me for weeks before I was to leave my old job he wanted me and my new firm on board to help out with some extremely tough projects. Not only did he not rope us in, he gave me the ‘did my email not make it to you? It had all the details!’ line. Pretty poor.
A ‘friend’ of mine told me time and again “I will get you so much work you’ll be ready to quit!” This was over seven months ago. Admittedly, he wanted response equipment pre-staged near his home – a move which would have cost me thousands of dollars. Our agreement was then settled at ‘1 call per month for three straight months’ and I will stage equipment wherever he wanted. Months and months went by — nothing.
I’m 100% certain each of the aforementioned individuals had very good intentions of helping out and putting themselves in place to either 1) help me by keeping me employed or 2) helping themselves by earning extra money. The reality of each of these situations is: they lacked drive and passion behind their promises due to the fact they know the source of their next paycheck.
You must know and live the YOYO principle: You’re On Your Own
– You will lose so many precious hours of sleep
Sleepless nights will become your new reality due to the fact your wheels never stop turning. I have sat up for hours on end worrying about finances, how to solve problems for customers, and how to find new ways to make and save more money. Prepare yourself and those around you for 24/7 obsession.
But who in the world would stay in a mindless state of mediocrity at a dead-end job to sleep through the night? Get out there and conquer! You can sleep plenty when you retire – oh wait, there’s no retirement…now lose sleep about that, too!
See? Regardless where you turn, there’s something to stress about.
There are certainly more lessons I want to share but today is moving day. With new growth comes new space requirements. Neither are a bad problem to have.
Below you will find a quick synopsis of our response to Dallas and some lessons learned that – if we don’t lean forward – could become painful for our industry. This list is not all inclusive. We need to continue scrubbing our AAR notes for inclusion into our Ebola–specific response SOP. To be candid, there are some things I will not put in writing due to the nature of the operation and a few extremely important lessons we learned in the hot zone. Nonetheless, I hope you find it useful in your preparations.
Some of what I’ve included below has created some backlash. As the owner of www.WatchtowerDefense.com
, this company, and a leader in my industry, it is extremely important to me that any operation leaves a solid impression of our performance. However, as a lifelong member of the emergency response industry, it is even more important both successes and shortcomings are identified. Not everything below will be politically correct and someone’s feelings could very well be hurt. Just know these notes are 100% constructive – even in the face of failure.
- People quake in the face of their fears
- I had three experienced HAZMAT Technicians – 1 retired from the US Army CBRN Corps and 2 from a large metro Fire Department – quit on me after the in-briefing onsite. The hysteria really has everyone spooked; even those we think have the utmost confidence in their equipment and one another. I’ll admit – I was scared, too. But in light of the nationwide crisis, neither Hell nor high water was going to keep me from making entry.
- PPE stockpile
- You will not have enough PPE. Our guidance from the highest levels of the response was to dispose of everything. As you might imagine, at the end of the operational period all of our PPE was gone. No boots, no gloves, no masks, no filters, no chem tape, no nothing. If your WMD-CST gets involved in the response, they will have to have their Log Support from Lexington Blue Grass leaning forward from the very beginning. Keep in mind, this was a 1-br, 732 sq/ft apartment. A larger residence would have created a logistical nightmare.
- Crowd Control
- There’s no way to keep everyone out. The press is relentless to get the story. Others in the complex were allowing reporters into their apartments for an up close and personal look. Finally, the police came in and established an access control point. Even then we still had residents brow beating us about their rights. I understand it completely – it just was not an issue we needed to deal with as entry team members. Truly, that was someone else’s problem.
- This is a tough one. There are a few things I am deliberately leaving out of this email as it is tough to describe our operations after making entry. Just know your entrants will be required to make on-the-spot decisions and it isn’t easy. This fact has created a need for an operational change on our end and we are working diligently on that. I could really go on and on with this but it just isn’t suitable to be written down and disseminated.
- The folks we supported spent $74,000 on drums and overpacks for this one operation. Transporting, hauling, and incinerating those drums was also extremely expensive. All total – I was told the cost was ~$500,000 just for the lifecycle of the drums.
- Each state’s WMD-CST is capable of establishing a world-class decontamination line. If it were me, I’d use their guidelines and set up your decontamination line just like they do. You’ll need to add a lane for the overpacks leaving the hot zone, but that’s easy enough.
- I’ll never say a bad word about any business that is willing to answer the call. However, I have heard some folks in charge of procurement in our state are pretty upset about vendors advertising their services in the wake of this crisis. It may be like this way elsewhere in the country or it could be an isolated event. I’m not sure. I do know the great folks here did a check on competencies and ended up with a couple of outstanding folks working operations in Dallas.
I want to encourage leaders in the emergency response industry to continue pushing their subordinates through extremely difficult training evolutions. Make them dress out and perform technically and tactically demanding procedures successfully to ensure they become both confident and proficient beyond the wildest stretch of anyone’s imagination.
In closing, I appreciate all of the folks we supported in Dallas and those that supported us. We worked alongside some of the best teams in the state and I am so proud to have been a part of the response.