Inclement weather didn’t put a damper on Naval Hospital Bremerton’s Decontamination Team in successfully conducting and concluding a DECON certification course, May 5, 2022.
Under less-than-ideal rainy conditions, NHB’s DECON team members were collectively and individually tested in being able to receive casualties during a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (and) explosives response (CBRNE) incident.
“In a real world scenario, a terrorist probably would not release a nerve or blood agent in the rain. However, that doesn’t preclude an accidental hazardous material/toxic chemical release. Performing in the cold, wet conditions would be a challenge without having to also don full personal protective equipment and still perform the decontamination procedures for ambulatory or non-ambulatory patients,” said Terry Lerma, NHB emergency preparedness manager.
The DECON team is the hospital’s crucial first responders to any CBRNE emergency. The Sailors assigned to the team are asked — and tasked — to provide the first line of defense for an emergency system that everyone hopes is never needed but has to be ready to put in place if necessary.
“If these Sailors don’t do their job, then no one at this hospital would be able to do their job either. There is no team more important,” stated Mr. Tom Bocek, DECON, LLC training manager. “Handling any CBRNE contamination takes precedence before anything else can get done during such an event.”
According to Lerma, the goal of the DECON training was to timely establish and maintain portable decontamination capability outside the hospital to keep contaminated patients from entering the facility, who would compromise the air quality within the building along with impact the safety of medical staff and patients inside.
“As some of my emergency manager counterparts say, “emergencies don’t make appointments,” and rightly so. Being able to respond and activate a mission capable and mission operational decontamination station swiftly and safely to protect the military treatment facility is critical in providing care to any victims, and to ensure we avoid spreading any contamination inside the hospital,” Lerma said.
For the approximately 55 Sailors assigned to the DECON team, the response exercise was the culmination of a three-day course with classroom didactic and hands-on training, with an emphasis on such basics as donning and using PPE and understanding decontamination procedures. The last day was devoted to equipment familiarization and processing of victims.
“In spite of the miserable weather conditions, the collective of new team members and the members who were doing their annual recertification performed extremely well, even impressing the DECON LLC instructors,” stated Lerma, adding that time-management is one of the critical benchmarks in judging how well the actual exercise played out.
After the word is passed that there is a potential CBRNE threat, the mission capable standard for a DECON team at a command like NHB to set up a DECON station and dress out at least four team members in PPE gear, is 15 minutes.
The mission operational time standard, getting a DECON station with tent and shower fully assembled, water heater attached and waste water bladder in place, and every team member fully dressed out, is 25 minutes.
“For a dual shelter MTF like us, there is an additional 10 minutes, 35 minutes total, to be fully mission operational with both tents fully operational and all team members fully dressed out,” Lerma said.
NHB’s DECON team time?
“The first DECON station was mission capable at 6 minutes 52 seconds and mission operational at 8:22, with half the team members dressed out. The second tent was mission capable in 9:50, and mission operational at 15:52. That15:52 time is with both tents fully operational and every single team member fully dressed out,” explained Lerma.
The DECON team’s mission is relatively straight forward — as soon as any patient shows up, the set-up scene goes from ‘cold’ to ‘warm’ (uncontaminated to contaminated) and the team’s duty is to cleanse the patient.
Bocek affirms that the entire technical DECON process requires focus and attention at every step along the way. Although timing is essential, doing everything correctly is imperative.
“It’s not about how fast but about how efficient, effective and safely they handle all the steps,” Bocek said.
“In those cold wet conditions, the times were phenomenal, and no one slipped, tripped or fell,” Lerma noted. “No one suffered any cold/hypothermia injuries. The DECON team members moved with a purpose and a focus.”
That focus might be needed when least expected, especially when taken in the context that there is a historical precedence.
Bocek shared that there’s been a number of incidents effecting U.S. military installations over the last dozen years, including one hitting close to home at NHB’s branch health clinic on Naval Station Everett in 2010. A hazardous substance solvent used in a variety of industrial uses from paints to brake fluids sent a delivery driver and three firemen to be decontaminated at Branch Health Clinic Everett Clinic before being transferred on to Providence hospital in Everett.
In 2011, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, caused by an undersea earthquake and associated tsunami, had aircrew personnel getting ‘decontaminated from USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) after potentially flying through invisible radioactive plumes.
Just five years earlier in 2017, an explosion and fire at an Eglin Air Force Base (Florida) laboratory released the toxic chemical methylene chloride which triggered 53 people needing decontamination attention.