Personal protective equipment: Terrorism & first responders

by Lt. Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA
Sponsored by ITT Night Vision

Prior to September 11th, 2001, first responders generally agree that Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) incidents and threats were an issue for our brothers and sisters in the fire service. Indeed, standards for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were developed by and for firefighters in 1994. However, the WTC and Pentagon attacks, as well as the anthrax attacks of that September and October 2001, stirred our thinking on what PPE requirements were necessary for first responding police personnel as well as special units within the police service.

What is CBRN and PPE?

CBRN refers to the deliberate use of a chemical, biological, radioactive substance or a nuclear bomb, to harm someone. In chemical attacks it is the release of a gas, liquid or solid that is toxic to people and the environment. The large scale use of chemicals as weapons has generally involved the release of a vapor or aerosol.

A biological weapon involves the use of a microbe or other toxin that can produce a disease. While most of the common biological agents are not contagious (such as anthrax), there are a few, like small pox, that can be spread from human to human causing a plague.

A radiological weapon is commonly referred to as a dirty bomb. It is the use of an explosive device to disperse radioactive material.

Finally, for a nuclear weapon, radiation poisoning is a deadly, albeit secondary effect. The primary effect is the intense heat and pressure created during the explosion.

Personal Protective Equipment is that which is designed to protect a human being from exposure to chemical, biological or radioactive substances. Depending on where you are, PPE won’t protect you from a nuclear explosion, but will protect you from the after affects like toxic smoke and radioactivity. Essentially, PPE creates a barrier between the first responder and the substance. The special clothing does not allow the substance to pass through the skin and the breathing apparatus does not allow the substance to enter via our mouth, nose and eyes.

The best PPE creates a self-contained environment for the first responder and a strong barrier between the responder and the toxic environment. While PPE for fire personnel is very good, it is virtually non-existent for first responding law enforcement personnel.

Constricting requirements

The National Institute for Justice (NIJ) has been continually researching and evaluating less-lethal control devices and they have developed a set of guidelines aimed at satisfying the needs of street police officers. Those guidelines may apply to our search for personal protective gear.

As an example, the NIJ realizes that police officers must be able to carrying their equipment with them into the field. Street cops, or first responder law enforcement personnel, have a limited amount of space in their vehicle and even a more limited ability to carry equipment on their person. With traffic stops, Terry stops and radio calls, we are in and out of the car all day. You carry what you are most likely to need, not what you might need for every exotic situation.

Police officers assigned to special details like a tactical response team are somewhat different. Often they carry additional equipment for those special call-out situations. Moreover, many departments, large and small, have other vehicles stocked with equipment to handle a myriad of tactical situations.

As we know, however, tactical teams are most often deployed after the incident has been somewhat stabilized or contained by the first responder. So we have a paradox, the person most likely to be the first person on scene, the street cop, is the person with the least amount of equipment.

Along with the obvious space restrictions on carrying equipment there are serious issues regarding training and proficiency. The first responder is the law enforcement generalist; the person responsible to know enough about everything to handle anything. But, you can only know and recall so much.

Indeed, we all have experienced the phenomenon of perishable skills. You are good at what you do day in and day out, traffic stops, Terry stops and radio calls. But, even with fairly standard equipment, like the firearm, baton and handcuffs, the skills of many police officers tend to degrade. Realizing this fact, the NIJ has a second requirement for less-lethal control device – ease of training and use.

Those two NIJ requirements -- compact enough to carry and simple enough to use -- are the crux of our search for terrorism-related personal protective equipment for the first responder. The men and women in the tactical squads, fire departments and other specialized units will continue to obtain the exotic, specialized equipment simply because they can carry it and training and preparation for use is provide by the organization.

What about Adapting Fire PPE?

Some have suggested that police consider adopting fire PPE. Set aside storage, training and cost and consider fire PPE when contrasted with the police officer’s primary mission.

Most complete PPE systems used by fire personnel would restrict a police officer’s ability to use physical force, manipulate their weapon, restrict their vision, and make using cover and concealment difficult at best. Even if you could put a full set of PPE gear in the trunk of your car and you committed to staying current on donning, use and care, etc., a police officer could not perform some of the most basic and relatively common law enforcement tasks while wearing the PPE designed for fire personnel.

The wholesale transfer of fire PPE to law enforcement doesn’t seem like a very good option. Perhaps, it’s not so much what additional equipment is needed by the first responding law enforcement officer as much as it a redefinition and reinforcement of the mission.

All Hazards Approach

The “all-hazards” approach to planning, training and response has been emphasized through this series of articles. Simply put, it is very unlikely that the average American police officer will respond to an actual terrorist-related incident.

However, during your career you are very likely to respond to a disaster or other similar emergency wherein your response will be similar to that of a terrorist attack. An overturned truck carrying a hazardous cargo is a good example of something that happens much more frequently and has many of the same characteristics of a CBRN attack.

Lacking certain equipment doesn’t mean law enforcement personnel aren’t going to respond, it means that our response and mission is restricted by our equipment. Like the overturned truck, a police officer’s response to a suspected CBRN terrorist attack should, at least, incorporate the following:

    1. Take measures not to become a victim. Uphill, upwind and distance are your best tactical response. Establish a command post and communicate a good situation report – area effected, command post location, equipment needed, response routes, etc.

    2. Contain the area. Remember one thing – it is easier to reduce the size of a perimeter around an incident than it is to increase it.

While there are additional duties, if you can keep from becoming a victim, establish command and begin to contain the area, you have taken the major steps toward recovery. While it may go against your nature to contain an area and call for the appropriate resources, if you don’t you may become part of the incident and not part of the recovery operations. That’s right – part of the problem, not the solution.

PPE and Universal Precautions

Your wool uniform, gas mask and latex gloves are not going to protect you from a CBRN attack. Recognizing that, there is certain equipment you should strongly consider putting into your equipment bag. Although there are no law enforcement PPE standards, you are coming into contact with toxic substances on a daily basis. Indeed, most police departments are beginning to make training in bloodborne pathogens a part of standardized training.

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, “Bloodborne pathogens are microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria that are carried in blood and can cause disease in people. There are many different bloodborne pathogens including malaria, syphilis, and brucellosis.” Like emergency medical services personnel, every police officer should be familiar with “universal precautions.” A universal precaution means that you treat all blood, bodily fluids and unknown substances as if they are infectious.

Years ago, beat cops would carry a single dime in bottom of the ammunition pouch. Before 9-1-1 and portable radios, you paid to call the police, even if you were the police. Like those beat cops, take a single pair of latex gloves, put it in a zip-lock bag and always carry that in your pocket. Every time you can, when you come into contact with bodily fluids or any unknown substance, use your latex gloves. While you can’t run back to the car and your equipment bag you can often reach into your pocket.

Keep a supply of latex extra gloves, surgical face masks, protective goggles and a disposable apron in your equipment bag. These items will take up very little space and can be very useful. While a surgical mask is not going to protect much from entering your body, it can capture much that leaves someone else’s. A surgical mask can be a useful item to put on a suspect who is spitting or threatening to spit. If you have these items and you called on to assist EMS or even the coroner, take some time and put on these items. Once you put these items in your equipment bag, their use will become apparent.

Here are some fairly standard universal precaution practices:

    1. Gloves, masks and aprons are single use items, dispose of them properly.

    2. Wash your hands.

    3. Don’t eat, drink, smoke, put on lip balm or cosmetics in a potentially contaminated area.

    4. If in doubt, contact your fire personnel regarding decontamination procedures.

Since the development of PPE gear for police officers is likely along way off, the best approach may be to reinforcement the primary mission, which is restricted by the lack of equipment. Moreover, even though we lack PPE, there are precautions we can take on a daily basis that will reduce the likelihood of becoming contaminated by an infectious and/or toxic substance.

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