Is Chemical Warfare Training For Journalists Futile?

By: Jim Moscou

It’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, yet the heat is becoming oppressive. Sweat runs down my back and legs. Under the quarter-inch-thick rubber gas mask, a bead of water drips down my face, cruelly tickling my skin. All the while, I know I can’t scratch it or even rub my mask for fear of breaking the life-saving seal I spent half an hour constructing. I am, presumably, airtight and protected from the outside atmosphere in what amounts to a delicate balance among clean air, claustrophobia, and a potentially agonizing death.

Those two hours wearing a full chemical and biological warfare suit — officially, my individual protective equipment (IPE) — won’t be forgotten soon, a point my instructor aims to make. The experience comes courtesy of Centurion Risk Assessment Services Ltd., the British outfit that has become known in U.S. newsrooms for training reporters heading off to hostile zones around the world. Centurion, and its competitor, the AKE Group in Hereford, England, have developed reputations for teaching conventional-warfare safety to journalists, offering only glancing looks at chemical and biological hazards.

No longer. Both of the for-profit companies have responded to customer demand (read: newsroom managers) for training in what many speculate might be a nightmare scenario — a chemical or biological attack, especially in a U.S. war with Iraq.

And courses are filling up fast. I’m taking part in Centurion’s new one-day Chemical Warfare Awareness Training course (AKE offers a two-day training class). Conducted 40 miles southwest of London, it drew eight British and American journalists, including two from large Texas newspapers and a national correspondent for a U.S. newspaper chain. Centurion and course participants prefer their identities not be revealed.

Unlike the hostile-environment courses, which are remarkably insightful, this training is frustrating, paradoxical, even ludicrous (albeit worthwhile). At one point, I felt that what our instructor really wanted to say was, “Look, you don’t really need to know this because if you’re attacked, you’re likely dead.”

The contradictions are driven home from the start by our affable host, Paul, who airs a chilling 1984 video of a western TV camera crew somewhere in Iran. We watch as a group of Iranian soldiers, partially clad in chemical-warfare gear, dig up an unexploded Iraqi artillery shell, unscrew the cap at its head, and pour out a yellow-brown substance: mustard gas. Later, the crew’s sound man, standing 20 feet away and not wearing proper IPE, as well as several Iranians, develop severe blisters.

The footage is great, the safety precautions chillingly inadequate. Paul’s point: exposure can be innocuous and strike with stunning quickness and effectiveness. A “safe” distance, Paul said, “is measured in miles, not feet.”

Biochemical-warfare training begins with a nearly incomprehensible laundry list of deadly agents: a mix of unique symptoms, smells, detection methods, treatment. Chemical agents, the most likely battlefield weapons, are categorized as nerve (quick-acting, odorless), choking (colorless gas or liquid, smells like hay or green grass), blister (delayed-reaction, inflammation, then skin or lung destruction), or blood (smells like bitter almonds, your heart may explode, death in minutes).

Irritated eyes, gasping, or unconsciousness may mean a blood agent. Yet irritated eyes and severe choking is likely caused by a choking agent. Each has a different reaction time and a tiny treatment window. Atropine can combat nerve-agent exposure. Yet, if you misdiagnose a nerve agent as a choking agent, the atropine will kill you.

Meanwhile, after getting a whiff of trouble (and if that whiff hasn’t killed you), and you happen to already have your chemical suit on, your gloves on, and your boots on — then, maybe, just maybe, “You got nine seconds to get the mask on,” Paul tells us.

We practice with our masks throughout the day, Paul yelling “Gas!” as we fumble to beat the clock and hope for a life-saving seal. It’s not so easy. To become proficient would take weeks of training, as in the military — not likely for any of the newsroom rats who I know.

As for our suits themselves, which appear bulky and cumbersome, dressing is an exact science. One mistake — some skin, say, exposed around your neck — and it might be curtains. And if you don’t already have your suit on once an attack hits, Paul said, there’s only one thing you can do: “Take three deep breaths.” In other words, end it all in a hurry.

The training lasted seven hours, providing only a flicker of the mastery we’d need to survive a real assault. But there are survival scenarios: You’re tied into a military unit with early-detection equipment. You’re expecting an attack. You already have your suit on as well as your gloves. Your gear is in working order. The attack comes. Your seals hold.

But, even then, you’re not out of danger. Those chemical suits are charcoal-lined, and have a remarkably short shelf life. Once exposed to certain chemicals, you may have only hours before the toxicity levels eat away at your suit, rendering you “exposed.” Moreover, the British gas masks we train with demand fresh canisters regularly. If you don’t have a spare (you should have at least three), kiss your butt goodbye.

As for decontamination, it’s a numbingly long, arduous process, and if not done correctly, it will kill you as fast as the original attack. You also can’t decontaminate alone; chemical-warfare protection requires the buddy system. And you need a special decontamination powder. If you don’t have it, you’re stuck in a ticking time bomb.

Which finally gets to the disheartening issue of the gear itself. One well-prepared student, a correspondent for a top British newspaper in Pakistan and Afghanistan, brought along his freshly purchased “Press” chemical kit. Unfortunately, he became an example rather than a model. Nearly all the equipment was at least a decade old. Useless, according to Paul.

In fact, obtaining proper working gear is a serious problem, especially for American reporters. Beyond the cost (about $1,000), the U.S. government restricts the sale of essentials, such as decontamination powder, detection equipment, and medicines, including atropine. So putting together a reliable kit may mean contacting companies in the United Kingdom or Israel. Then, too, there are many types of gas masks and gear. They must all work together, and you must know how they’re used.

By 5 p.m., trying to keep “safe” from a sudden chemical attack felt like a morbidly futile exercise — and that’s perhaps why Centurion tempered this training course by highlighting the word, “Awareness,” not “Protection.” After all, no living Westerner has fought a war like this.

At one point, Paul had to confer with a colleague on a decontamination procedure. It wasn’t ignorance, just another sign that one of the worst weapons ever developed is still in its original box, not experienced by this generation of soldiers or reporters, yet. Perhaps all the more reason to be prepared — or as prepared as you can get.

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