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CDP to Resume using Nerve Agents, Biological Materials in Select Courses

ANNISTON, Ala. – The Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) announced today that the Center will resume using nerve agents and biologicals in some of its hazardous materials training courses on Jan. 11.


In late 2016, the CDP in Anniston, Alabama, suspended the use of the nerve agents GB and VX, and biologicals ricin and anthrax after it was discovered the Center’s Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological training facility (COBRATF) had received, via third party vendor, and had been using a more toxic version of ricin in training than what CDP had ordered.

Since then, the CDP has continued to conduct hazardous material training at its COBRA facility, but without those agents and biologicals.

To resume training with the materials, the CDP will purchase ricin-A chain from a different vendor in the CDC’s Select Agent Program. CDP staff have visited and validated the reliability of its processes. The vendor will ship orders to a laboratory at DHS’s National Bioforensic Analysis Center for analysis before being shipped to the CDP for use in training.

That third-party validation process will add to a number of recent enhancements – both physical and administrative – at the COBRA facility aimed at making it even safer for those training with the four types of materials. These improvements include:

  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved respirator masks, for students and instructors.
  • Updates to the facility’s ventilation system to allow more precise control of the air flow and pressure in the training bays where the agents and toxins are used.
  • Approval to hire additional staff, to include an additional safety and occupational health officer, an additional environmental management specialist, and an additional quality assurance analyst.

The enhancements also include the creation of a formal advisory board for the facility, which will include representatives from a number of national (DOD, DOJ, HHS and FEMA) occupational safety and health and compliance assurance offices and agencies.

"Our number one goal is to provide our students and staff the safest, most realistic training possible," said CDP Acting Superintendent Tony Russell. “With these enhancements, we will continue to do just that."

The CDP’s COBRATF trains up to 2,500 civilian first responders a year to detect and operate in environments with chemical, biological and nuclear materials. This advanced, hands-on training builds confidence in those responders to effectively respond to real-world incidents involving those materials throughout the nation.

Overall, the CDP trains up to 50,000 students annually, from public health, public works and emergency management officials to hazardous material specialists, law enforcement specialists, firefighters, and doctors, nurses and other health care workers. The students come from all states and U.S. territories, as well as a number of foreign countries.

In July, the CDP reached an historic milestone when it trained its one millionth student.

The CDP first opened its doors in 1998.

Further information on CDP is available at https://cdp.dhs.gov/.

Note: Incoming and prospective students who have questions or would like more information should call the CDP Registrar’s Office at (256) 847-2081, 2082 or 2084.

Questions and Answers Regarding the Resumption of Training with Nerve Agents, Biological Materials

1. Is the CDP ready to re-introduce nerve agents and biologicals into course curriculum at the Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological Training Facility (COBRATF)?

Yes. Since early 2017 the CDP has completed multiple actions to enhance safety and increase regulatory compliance as it relates to chemical and biological training at the COBRATF. Completed improvements range from complex physical improvements to facilities, to full compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.

2. What are some of the compliance-related actions the CDP has performed in regard to the COBRATF?

  • The COBRATF is now fully compliant with the OSHA respiratory protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134), including requirements related to training, medical clearance, use of a NIOSH-certified respirator, and other requirements. CDP has also fully integrated the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Avon C-50 civilian-approved full face air purifying respirator in all COBRATF training. The Avon C-50 mask is compliant for CBRN operations.
  • The COBRATF Standards Document has been further refined to ensure applicable industry standards are being applied across the entire COBRATF. The Standards Document is based upon applicable OSHA and EPA guidelines, and best management practices of the National Fire Protection Association, American National Standards Institute, and others.

3. Have there been any additional oversight reviews conducted at the COBRATF?

Yes. Multiple third-party reviews have been conducted over the past months, confirming COBRATF compliance with multiple standards. Examples:

  • U.S. Army Materiel Command completed its bi-annual Surety Management Review of COBRATF operations, policies and procedures and certified the facility as "Fully Mission Capable" in all areas.
  • COBRATF operations and processes were reviewed by the Health and Human Services’ Office of Federal Occupational Health, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Compliance Assurance Program Office, FEMA’s Safety Health and Medical Readiness Team, and the American Biological Safety Association. The U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center audited and certified COBRATF’s Quality Management System, along with its Air Monitoring Program. The U.S. Army Public Health Command audited and certified the COBRATF blood lab. The ABSA accredited the biological lab and all processes used in training students in the bays. COBRATF is the first facility to ever receive that designation for biological lab processes.

4. What are some of the physical improvements the CDP has made at the COBRATF?

Key facility improvement includes the complete upgrade of the Heating, Air Conditioning, and Ventilation (HVAC) system for the COBRATF training bays. This upgrade includes a new state-of-art control system, which allows real-time monitoring of air flows while providing a more precise control of the air flow, temperature, and pressure in the training bays where the agents and biologicals are used. The upgrades also include additional air handlers, chillers, etc., to ensure redundant HVAC capacity within the training bays.

5. Are there other improvements which have been made?

Yes.

  • COBRATF’s Quality Management System has been expanded to include all aspects of COBRATF chemical and biological operations. The U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center audited and certified the COBRATF’s Quality Management System, along with the COBRATF’s Air Monitoring Program.
  • The CDP has changed how it procures the ricin A-chain that will be used in training. CDP worked closely with the CDC’s Select Agent Program to identify a vendor to supply all future ricin A-chain for COBRATF training. CDP staff visited the vendor to validate and verify the reliability of its processes. The CDP has also coordinated with the DHS’ National Bioforensics Analysis Center to test all ricin A-chain purchased before it’s shipped to the COBRATF for use in training.

6. How much did these improvements cost?

Many of the improvements were already in progress prior to the suspension of live agent training. Of the improvements directly tied to COBRATF restart, changes to the HVAC system and the travel costs associated with visiting the new vendor who will supply all ricin A-chain for future COBRATF training, those costs came to approximately $2.9 million.

7. Why weren’t these improvements made before now?

The CDP has always worked to provide COBRATF students and staff the safest possible training environment. Most of the noted improvements were already in process. Others were added as part of the holistic review we took of COBRATF operations.

8. How will the CDP resume training with nerve agents and biologicals? Will you begin using all the chemical and biological agents at the same time, or take a staggered approach?

Although the CDP is prepared to resume training with all the agents and biologicals, it will do so in phases. The COBRATF will introduce GB, VX and Anthrax delta Sterne in select courses first (beginning January 11). It will then resume training with ricin A-chain. Training with ricin A-chain will be the last material introduced because it will take about 45 days after a ricin order is placed for that order to be processed by the vendor, analyzed by the DHS National Bioforensic Analysis Center lab, and shipped to the COBRATF for use in training. Also, to be clear, each agent is used separately, deliberately, in separate bays. No two agents are ever combined in any form of training.

9. Why use these toxic substances at all? Wouldn’t something less lethal like tear gas be enough to give students the same training experience?

The CDP uses nerve agents and biological materials to create training environments not possible with simulated toxins. CDP students train in fully functional protective gear and follow all safety and decontamination protocols when training with the materials. When training with live agents, students gain those critical skills and the necessary confidence to respond effectively to local incidents. If a first responder encounters actual agents in real scenarios, he/she will feel more confident in the training and equipment, and will be better prepared to respond to an actual incident.

10: Can students who missed this training in their courses come back and take this portion?

No. There is no make-up scenario. Emergency responders will need to sign up for additional courses that have a “hot” module.

Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological Training Facility (COBRATF) Background

The Center for Domestic Preparedness’ (CDP’s) mission is to train emergency response providers from state, local, tribal and territorial governments, as well as the federal government, foreign governments, and private entities, as available.

COBRA Training Facility
COBRA Training Facility

A key component of the CDP’s mission is its Chemical, Ordnance, Biological and Radiological Training Facility (COBRATF) in Anniston, Alabama. At COBRATF, the CDP trains approximately 2,500 civilian first responders a year to detect and operate in environments with chemical, biological and radiological materials.

The advanced, hands-on training enables responders to effectively respond to real-world incidents involving chemical, biological, explosive, radiological, or other hazardous materials. First responders serve as the nation’s first line of defense and deserve the highest-quality training available.

The CDP traces its foundation to 1995 following the Sarin attacks in Tokyo’s subway system. That event prompted American civilian response personnel to request training from the Department of Defense, which uses nerve agents in the training of military men and women at the U.S. Army’s Chemical School. Based on the initial training that began in 1995 with the military, the CDP was created in 1998 following the move of the U.S. Army’s Chemical School from Anniston, Alabama.

Since then, the CDP has been instrumental in training and preparing state, local, tribal, and territorial first responders.

In July 2017, the CDP reached an historic milestone when it trained its one-millionth student.