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167th participates in bioterror drill

January 22, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The hull of the massive C-5 aircraft was empty save for a few boxes, and a small woven rug and folded wool blanket, fibers infested with a brown chemical.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Brian Burns stalked toward the rug, his head-to-toe orange Teflon-like jumpsuit crinkling with each step.

Behind him, Army Sgt. Dave Reeves of the 35th Civil Support Team (WMD) and Air Force Tech Sgt. Bruce Christman of the 167th Airlift Wing entered the C-5 cautiously, adrenaline fogging the plastic around their face as they talked through gas masks with air borrowed from an oxygen tank.

The men walked as if the substance on the rug was lethal.

With terrorism, Burns said they must be prepared for anything.

"You are literally at the will of whatever terrorist group is going to create an incident. Terrorists are only limited by their imaginations," he said. "9/11, they used aircraft literally as missile."

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For the first time since the United States recognized bioterrorism as a threat, the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia spent Thursday simulating how it would respond should anthrax land on its doorstep, in the hull of a West Virginia Air National Guard C-5 plane.

Under the direction of the Center for National Response, the 167th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air Guard, together with the National Guard 35th Civil Support Team (WMD), the FBI, Customs and Border Control and emergency services personnel from the Panhandle, responded to the forced landing of a C-5 after its passengers became ill from anthrax while heading home.

Training Specialist/Exercise Planner Floyd Burdine wrote the scenario drilled on Thursday and carefully hid the fake anthrax that Burns, Christman and Reeves respected like a ticking bomb.

Every move made by the men could be the difference between success or failure in an actual situation, from rinsing their hands in a bleach solution to how close they placed their gear to the rug, Burdine said as he watched the men.

Col. Brian Truman, vice commander of exercise operations for the 167th, said the exercise was the first time the base has coordinated with national, state and local agencies to simulate a massive regional response to a terrorist situation. Airmen in the 167th run four training exercises a year, but those rarely include multiple civilian and governmental agencies.

Makeshift laboratories, debriefing areas, fire engines, tactical vehicles, tents and gear filled the tarmac at the 167th during Thursday's drill.

Dave Underwood, senior exercise planner/analyst with the Center for National Response, said the center, a government contractor from Gallagher, W.Va., also known as The Tunnel, coordinated the multipart exercise.

The center also acted as evaluator for the training.

Underwood said members of his organization, including Burdine, played a critical role in the simulation by evaluating "the good, the bad and the ugly" that they observed in the exercise.

The daylong anthrax emergency exercise was designed to teach regional coordination should a terrorist emergency at the base require assistance from local hospitals, ambulance squads and state authorities.

The training also tested the preparedness and procedure of the agencies.

Burns said after six years with the 35th Civil Support Team (WMD) out of St. Albans, W.Va., he noticed areas for improvement as he and three other members worked in the hull of the C-5 to gather secure samples of fake anthrax placed on blankets and rugs like those found in the markets of Afghanistan.

In addition to debriefings after each stage of the simulation, Underwood said the Center for National Response will issue a detailed After Action Report to each agency with comments on the training.

Martinsburg City Hospital, Jefferson Memorial Hospital, Berkeley County Emergency Services, Berkeley County Emergency Ambulance Authority, Eastern Panhandle Red Cross, health departments from Berkeley and Jefferson counties, and Shepherd University also participated in the training.

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