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21st Century Decontamination Where Are We Going?

21st Century Decontamination Where Are We Going?

There are few things more uncomfortable and more dangerous than working in a HazMat suit in a HazMat Danger area. There are also few things more exhausting. To the public HazMat Operatives seem rather like tame Martians oddly human shaped but a different colour, moving like automatons, stopping for a rest frequently and avoided by all the normal looking people.

If there are two more difficult and dangerous places apart from an Ebola ward they involve CBRN (chemical biological radiological and nuclear) threats and the world of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and counter improvised explosive devices (CIED); both frequently called “bomb disposal”.

CBRN and EOD are probably more dangerous because somebody is deliberately trying to kill you. Both are more uncomfortable, one because it is long term and the other because EOD bomb suits are even heavier, hotter and less comfortable than a HazMat suit. EOD is infinitely more lonely because the operator is cold bloodily working on his own. Bomb disposal was the first military/counter terrorist branch to embrace the use of unmanned vehicles or robots. This development was spurred on by the horrendous casualties among EOD operators in the early days of the bombing campaigns in Northern Ireland.

Many of these casualties were caused by pure bad timing, arriving too late to render the device safe but nevertheless making an attempt to do so. Many others were quite deliberate attempts to booby trap the security forces with secondary devices and anti-handling devices and with yet a third class of device designed specifically to kill the bomb disposal officer with compound and complex devices.

The ability of the British armed forces and their scientific back-up to try to out-think, out-smart and outperform the bombers earned the bomb disposal operators the nickname of Felix, the famed cat with nine lives. A key part of this success was a series of bomb disposal robots developed initially by Graseby Dynamics and then latter by Alvis and latter still by Northrop Grumman. There have been several imitators and many clones but all operated on the basic principle of not putting the man in the suit at risk by deploying his tools to the site of the device and either disrupting or defusing it remotely.

Fast forward a decade or so to the road side bombs of Iraq and Afghanistan and the same issues prevailed. An extremely cheap but effective weapon system or systems was causing high levels of casualties. A key part of the activities to “defeat the device”, one of the phases and phrases of the CIED policy, inevitably involved extraordinary bravery and great coolness by individual bomb disposal operators to defuse multiple complex devices and recover forensic evidence to allow actions to “defeat the network”. However an increasing reliance was being placed on unmanned robotic devices or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). A UGVs’ part in the battle was to reduce the effectiveness of IEDs, clear them from key routes and the routes the troops wished to use and make areas safe for civilians to move and live in.

The robots were used to carry tools to the explosive device to disable it, smash the device out of the ground or physically disrupt it so it failed to function. These robots slowly moved from small electric vehicles, usually battery powered, to diesel driven with huge weight carrying capacity, a large range of disruption tools and great endurance and power provision allowing them to move with the troops without having to rely on a vehicle to transport them. They also allowed the troops to concentrate on their job without having to worry about the IED threat because the device took care of it. The state of the art was thus defined. The DOK-ING MV 4 known in the US as the M160 probably set the standard.

A key difference between CBRN and HazMat is that a CBRN target is by definition just that a target as opposed to something that happens to get in the way. This pre-supposes that someone has deliberately attacked it or it must be assumed that it will be attacked. It must therefore be able to resist attack by chemicals of all types, with some more likely than others to be encountered, radiological materials and biological matter. This resistance can come from design for resistance to contamination or for ease of decontamination and build standards including the incorporation of special paints or sacrificial coatings that peel off when contaminated. Whatever the method or combination of methods used the process is designed to remove or minimise deliberate contamination.

In a HazMat situation contamination is distributed randomly in a contaminated area that is not expected to be contaminated. The contamination is not, except in very rare circumstances, the result of a deliberate act. The distribution of contaminant in the contaminated area is a result of serendipity not deliberate action. Who would have thought that a postal sorting office and a newspaper office would be contaminated by hazardous material as they were in the USA? Deliberately preparing everything as the military should do for contamination is unlikely to be possible or affordable. Attempts to decontaminate this sort of target need to take into account a variety of surfaces, substances, materials and concentrations. It is a horrendous task.


Dealing with the task of decontamination is likely to be time consuming, messy and require a lot of people unless it is effectively targeted. The more effective the directing of the decontamination methodology onto the contaminant, the more efficient the decontamination and the less manpower used and, if the decontamination is water based, the less water used. In many areas water supply is a vital consideration. This targeting is achieved by effective survey and monitoring of the target area. In other words there is a need to use instruments to find where the contamination actually is and then when decontamination is administered confirm the effectiveness of the decontamination.

Developing this issue of survey/monitoring, there is a distinction to be drawn between chemical and radiological substances and hazards and biological material and hazards. In essence the speed of reaction required is the difference between a “lights, bells and sirens” affair for chemical and radiological and a public health event for biological. This is fortunate because radiological and chemical detectors and monitors are capable of rapid agent detection and identification whereas biological sampling and analysis systems can, and often do, take several hours to provide results. The concept is thus to identify the chemical and radiological materials and decontaminate as quickly as possible. People who might be contaminated by biological material, for instance the ubiquitous white powder, can be isolated, tested, then decontaminated and treated.

What this means is that within the hot zone there needs to be an effective collection system so that the sample can be collected, tagged for evidence purposes, and, in the case of a biological detector, stored, transported to the detector, for they are large and not robust enough to move into the hot zone, and then analysed. Systems incorporating mimic hands are now coming available that allow this previously very difficult activity to occur. Shadow Dexterous Hand is an example of this.

For all forms of CBRN/HazMat decontamination a water/foam mixture, in whatever concentration/mixture is usually the preferred option. Different concentrations are available for different classes of decontamination. The usual classifications of decontamination targets are people for which RSDL is probably the most popular, sensitive equipment and important equipment and property (again using RSDL or SX-34 sensitive equipment decontaminant from Cristanini SpA) followed by bulk/inert equipment or property.

There are some aspects of HazMat that are not usually required in CBRN probably the main three are; the ability to hear what is going on around the site, the need to cool various elements of the HazMat site and the ability to lift and carry and or rip and pull things apart.

There are now good sound systems that will allow the noises and sounds, for example those of boiling pressurised gasses or venting explosive vapours, on site to be transmitted over distance so the need for human ears on site is dispensed with, a further distancing of the operator from the danger. Mechanical systems are much better at lifting and ripping and tearing objects on site. They do not get tired and they do not risk tearing the operator’s HazMat suit. Water and foam can be mixed and delivered on site. Equally as important as “ears” are “eyes”. Good cameras are essential.

All this information and data from sensors is all well and good but what do you do with it. Prediction systems are now available to calculate the contaminated area and predict downwind plumes. To do this they need accurate meteorology data. Marking the contaminated area is important to prevent cross contamination. Again borrowing from the military both these systems are available.

This is a considerable new capability that is being put together. A capability is only as good as the training the users receive. The training the users receive is only as good as the realism and fidelity of that training. Establishments like the Swedish Rescue Training Centre/SCP in Skovde Sweden are the ideal place to train and test operators and commanders alike in the new skills and capabilities and the decisions that surround them and make them an effective team. Once that initial training is complete and people understand the tactics, procedures and capabilities required and available it needs embedding in procedures and constant practice. To borrow a phrase made popular by an animal charity in the UK “HazMat is for life not just for Christmas!” As our world gets ever more complex and chemical there will always be a need for evolving HazMat.

It can be seen that a capability is emerging that takes the best of capability from the EOD/CIED and CBRN arenas and couples it with unique HazMat requirements and turns it into a capability able to do what unmanned vehicles do very well i.e. dull dirty and dangerous tasks. HazMat is never dull but it is certainly dirty and dangerous. This can be done without putting the operators at risk and can be used to get into incident scenes which currently would be inaccessible.

These requirements are something that can be put together on a single platform which allows all of these capabilities to de deployed within a contaminated area, be it a HazMat or CBRN, many of these are common and can be combined. Thus sensing, sample collection, sights and sounds, decontamination, ripping and tearing, meteorology, prediction and marking can all but packaged onto a UGV and deployed to report an work from within the hot zone and deal with the HazMat problem remotely and this surely has to be the way to go, wherever possible removing the man from the danger area.

For further information, go to www.lutra-associates.com

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Chief Executive of Lutra Associates.