Vol. 6, No. 5
May 2014

Drill sharpens response skills

The chemical attack, gunmen and panicked spectators at an Iowa ballpark were a staged scenario, but the response was real.

Weapons of mass destruction teams and other agencies from across the state, including members of the State Hygienic Laboratory, use full-scale exercises, such as the one this spring at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, as real-life training.

"It's very important to participate in these exercises to maintain our level of preparedness and readiness in the state of Iowa," said Wanda Reiter-Kintz, Ph.D., Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the State Hygienic Lab. "It helps for us to exercise our protocols, as well."

HazMat team members begin the decontamination process following a preparedness drill held on April 23 at Davenport’s Modern Woodmen Park. Members of the Hygienic Laboratory’s Emergency Preparedness team participated in the exercise to maintain readiness for bioterrorism and chemical terrorism threats.

Reiter-Kintz said the lab participates in three to five exercises annually; some are "tabletop" - a discussion and review of procedures that would be used in a disaster - and others, like the one in Davenport, are full-scale, with volunteers playing the role of victims, and various agencies responding as they would to a real emergency.

First responders are the obvious choice to participate in those full-scale drills, but Reiter-Kintz encourages organizers to include the State Hygienic Lab, as well.

In addition to responding to infectious disease threats, testing drinking water and waterways for contaminants, and providing newborn screening, the mission of Iowa's public health and environmental laboratory has expanded over the years to address bioterrorism and chemical terrorism response and readiness.

The lab conducts tests for “white powders” - a generic term for unknown powder samples that may contain a biological substance, Reiter-Kintz noted. Having lab personnel on-scene can help responders with sample collection and other protocols, in addition to providing an exercise for the lab.

April's drill differed from others in which white powders were sent for analysis. The scenario involved a terrorist attack using a chemical release, after which the Hygienic Lab staff ran tests to identify what chemical was involved.

Doing so helps direct how victims are treated at the hospital and determines other precautions and steps that need to be taken, said Lieutenant Colonel Russ Bossard of the 71st Civil Support Team (CST) from the Iowa National Guard, which coordinated the drill.

"They're the gold standard lab for the state of Iowa," Bossard said. "We can give a preliminary analysis, but the State Hygienic Lab can give the true results. So, it's very important to integrate our training with the Hygienic Laboratory."

Bossard noted that about 120 responders were involved in the latest exercise, including weapons of mass destruction hazardous materials teams. Two members of the State Hygienic Lab were at the scene: Drew Fayram, an Emerging Infectious Disease fellow from the CDC/Association of Public Health Laboratories, and Steve Treimer, Ph.D., Emergency Response chemist, who is also a volunteer firefighter captain and EMT with the Wilton Fire Department/EMS.

“That experience helps me put my feet in the shoes of the HazMat technicians that I am working with,” said Treimer, who took an active role in receiving the chemical samples during the exercise. “They all know I wish I could be right there with them.”

Treimer said the Hygienic Laboratory and the (CST) have worked closely together since 2003, when the lab initiated its terrorism preparedness program.

“We received samples from the CST and helped to solve quite a few unknown chemical and 'white powder' incidents from 2003 to 2007,” he said. “My role has been as the primary chemist to identify unknown chemicals in the samples.”

Treimer’s duties with the Hygienic Laboratory were expanded in 2007 to include working directly with first responder teams throughout the state.

Fire fighters practice performing triage during the mock chemical attack.

“Our mission was to have them work with actual samples they might encounter in Iowa: poisons, pesticides, industrial chemicals, white powders, etc.,” he said. “I began sending them practice samples to work with to help them keep their identification skills sharp on the various pieces of instrumentation that they use when responding to a HazMat emergency.”

Iowa has 22 HazMat teams, seven of which are trained to the weapons of mass destruction response level. Last year, Treimer and the 71st Civil Support Team conducted onsite training with each of the teams in Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Sioux City and Waterloo. The other teams were invited to the April full-scale exercise in Davenport.

Treimer said the Civil Support Team's lead scientist prepared a real-life sample for the lab to identify in the exercise, based on a recipe for an irritant similar to tear gas.

“This role-reversal allowed our lab an opportunity to show our capabilities to assist during a WMD emergency,” he said. “We always hope to be present during the exercises so that the teams understand our commitment to helping them accomplish their mission; giving the teams the added assurance that they’ve done all possible to identify hazardous materials affecting the public’s health.”

Treimer said the Hygienic Lab provides the teams with sample collection kits and offers to transport any samples sent to the lab as quickly as possible and free of charge as part of the lab's Emergency Preparedness mission for the state.

To that end, Fayram's observational role during the training exercise helped further connections between the lab and first responders.

"I was there to help in developing partnerships and to let those partners know what services we can provide," Fayram said, noting that some of the first responders were unaware of the work performed by the State Hygienic Laboratory. "It's always easier to contact someone you've met. I hope they keep our resources in mind if there's ever a real event."

While some people may think Iowa is insulated from a terrorist attack, Reiter-Kintz pointed to white powder tests conducted as recently as last fall among the reasons for the importance of preparedness.

"I think the chance of a terrorism event is always a concern," she said. "That's why these exercises are very beneficial."