In an America where acts of terror are a real threat and too frequent of an occurrence, we often overlook the key role local responders play not only in saving lives, but in helping bring terrorists to justice. The Hazardous Materials Evidence Collection for CBRNE Incidents (HEC) course taught at the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, Ala., teaches first responders to thoroughly identify, document and collect evidence in a hazardous, or even toxic, environment.

“If it’s a CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives) incident, the FBI is going to investigate,” said David Blaker, an HEC instructor at the CDP. “But most likely, the first responders on that scene will be local, not federal. The decisions they make and the actions they take are vital when it comes to evidence. And even when the FBI arrives, they will likely rely on some of those same responders for support during the investigation.” Blaker retired from the New Jersey State Police after 31 years of service and, upon retirement, became the county prosecutor for Cape May County, N.J.

Blaker said one of the most important learning objectives of the course is the protection of evidence from loss or contamination.

“Federal prosecutors will prosecute the case,” he explained, “so the preservation of evidence by first responders who understand federal protocols is very important.”

Kent Latimer, chief of the Training Management branch at the CDP, said historical events and the changing crime scene environment led to the development of the course.

“The sarin attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995, of course 9-11 – there’s a long list of events, unfortunately, that demonstrate that the threat of a CBRNE event is very real,” Latimer explained. “This course teaches responders what to look for and what to protect on the scene. It teaches them to recognize evidentiary value and methodologies critical to the preservation of evidence.”

Latimer said the two-day course was developed in collaboration with the FBI and heavily utilizes the bureau’s 12-step investigative process to help standardize the response activities among local, state and federal agencies.

Blaker compares the training to creating “a law enforcement playbook that is consistent throughout the country, among all agencies.”

Texas State Trooper Katherine Creekmore said she and other Texas State Troopers have attended HEC and numerous other CDP classes to gain the knowledge and skills to assist the Texas Highway Patrol in developing its first CBRNE response team.

“The state capitol [in Austin, Texas] receives suspicious packages on a regular basis,” Creekmore said. “We always depend on Austin Fire [Department], but in some scenarios they may not be able to respond, so we are developing our own team.”

“Everything stays fluid at the CDP,” she said. “Each class builds on the next, and now we speak the same language as federal agencies and other organizations we need to work with.”

In the HEC classroom, students learn the protocols of identifying and collecting evidence in a CBRNE environment, where hazards can range from toxic white powders to radioactive substances or biological agents. They then apply what they’ve learned in a series of hands-on scenarios while wearing personal protective equipment, which compounds the complexity of evidence collection.

“HEC gives students the confidence of knowing they can perform the important role of evidence collection in an operationally challenging environment,” Latimer said.

“A graduate of this course is going to be an effective responder and able to assist in the federal investigation,” Blaker said. “Without this course, responders will look like a deer in the headlights when the FBI shows up.”

CDP training for state, local, tribal and territorial responders is fully funded by DHS, to include travel, lodging and meals. For more information on HEC and other upcoming courses, go to http://cdp.dhs.gov.