Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons: Developing an Emergency Response Capability

Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons: Developing an Emergency Response Capability

Given the ever-increasing sophistication and versatility of attacks against aviation, those responsible for the security of airports and airlines must be prepared to respond to incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) agents. Ricardo Santiago Sferco discusses previous incidents and describes how to structure a response to this type of attack.

The International Convention on Civil Aviation and its Annexes 9 (Facilitation), 17 (Aviation Security) and 18 (Transport without Risk of Dangerous Goods by Air) establish a series of commitments that Contracting States assume when they apply security procedures according to the prevailing circumstances. These commitments must be included in the National Civil Aviation Security Programme (NCASP) and in the security programmes of each airport.

An ‘act of unlawful interference’ is defined as an act or attempt that compromises the security of civil aviation, including the introduction of weapons or dangerous devices (or substances) on board an aircraft, or at an airport, for criminal purposes.

When an airport authority draws up an Airport Contingency Plan, it is advisable to include measures – including the human and material resources necessary¬ – to respond to new and emerging threats, among which we should include chemical, biological, nuclear and/or radiological (CBRN) attacks.

Why We Should Consider This Problem

The Institute for Economics and Peace annually presents the Global Terrorism Index (GTI). Since 2004, this index has been showing a sustained increase in terrorist attacks.

The 2015 GTI has explored the relationship between terrorist activity and levels of political conflict and terror, finding that 92% of terrorist attacks between 1989 and 2014 occurred in countries where political violence towards citizens by a state was widespread.

According to the 2016 GTI, in 2015 there was a worrying return of transnational terrorism, with a global economic impact comparable to the previous year, costing the world economy US $89.6 billion.

However, even airport contingency planners in states with low terrorism indexes should consider the following:

  • In the airport environment, CBRN emergencies can occur due to incidents or accidents involving dangerous goods; both on the premises and on board aircraft;
  • Alarms can be received at the airport due to the probable presence of CBRN agents, both in facilities and on board aircraft;
  • Airlines registered in countries that have suffered threats and/or terrorist attacks – with appropriate countermeasures in place – may operate from an airport in a low-risk country.

Based on this context, a series of measures and procedures should be considered to counteract the consequences arising from a probable attack with CBRN devices.

After all, there is an established history of terrorists using chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. In 1995, members of the sect Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) attacked a Tokyo subway using sarin gas. More recently, in July 2016, the Brazilian Federal Police detained a group of people suspected of planning terrorist attacks using chemical weapons during the development of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Why Terrorists Might Use CBRN Weapons of Mass Destruction

Malaysia's hazmat team conducts a decontamination operation at Kuala Lumpur International Airport following the February 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-Nam using VX nerve gas
Malaysia’s hazmat team conducts a decontamination operation at Kuala Lumpur International Airport following the February 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-Nam using VX nerve gas

CBRN weapons of mass destruction (WMD) differ from other terrorist weapons because:

  • They are composed of biological agents, radioactive or nuclear material, or military or industrial chemical products, which have their impact some time after detonation rather than at the time of detonation;
  • They represent a permanent danger for emergency response personnel if they are not well protected;
  • Unlike other terrorist weapons, they have the potential to kill or affect many thousands of people;
  • Like traditional improvised explosive devices, they kill indiscriminately without consideration of age, sex or religion, nationality or politics.

CBRN weapons may be a preferred method of attack for various reasons. Many chemical/biological agents are actually both relatively easy to obtain and to use (e.g. dispersed via aerosol, air conditioning systems or by a broken vial). Secondly, very small quantities of CB agents can affect large areas, especially in enclosed spaces, and, even after the attack has taken place, incidents involving CBRN agents can be very difficult for security personnel to recognise. Finally, despite the increasing regularity of incidents involving this type of weapon, many organisations are not well equipped to deal with this kind of attack.

Historical Background

According to statistics from the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism (CICTE), some 538 cases of terrorist acts have occurred in the world using CBRN agents, of which 311 were chemicals. The most significant cases worldwide include:

  • Murders during the Cold War using ricin.
  • Murder of the Kurdish population in northern Iraq through the use of sarin gas.
  • (The aforementioned) attack on the Tokyo subway using sarin gas.
  • Attacks using anthrax contained in envelopes delivered in US mail.

Potential CBRN Emergencies in Airports

CBRN emergencies occurring in areas under aviation jurisdiction must be divided into two different categories, both in fixed locations and on aircraft. They can be classified either as an ‘illicit interference act (in aircraft or facilities)’ or as an ‘incident or accident involving dangerous goods’.

I. Illicit Interference Act

Illicit Interference Act on Aircraft:

a. Threat of use, or actual use, of a chemical or biological WMD
b. Illicit seizure of an aircraft with the threat of use of chemical WMD
c. Arrival of passengers contaminated with a biological or chemical agent.

Illicit Interference Act in Facilities:

a. Threat of use, or actual use, of a chemical or biological WMD or a ‘dirty bomb’.
b. Taking hostages with threat of use of chemical type WMD.
c. Sabotage with the use of an industrial chemical.

II. Incident or Accident Involving Dangerous Goods

In Aircraft:

d. Spillage or leakage of declared dangerous goods.
e. Spillage or leakage of unreported dangerous goods.

In the Interior of Installations or in Open Places of the Airport Area:

a. Spillage or leakage of declared dangerous goods.
b. Spillage or leakage of unreported dangerous goods.
c. Incident with hazardous waste stored in airport facilities.
d. Traffic accident with leakage or spillage of chemical products.

Response Structure

Following an incident involving a CBRN weapon, time is of fundamental importance; the rescue of victims must occur quickly and therefore external support should not be depended upon. The longer the delay in the initial response to the emergency, the greater the chances that a minor event will turn into a more serious one. It is also important to remember that the threat is multidimensional, so the emergency response must be, too.

Each airport should have CBRN Emergency Response Groups or nuclei in order to implement, in the shortest possible time, security and mitigation measures that correspond to this type of threat.

Considering the possible types of emergency raised in the previous paragraph and the origin of them, it must stipulate the type of response to be deployed and who must carry it out. The following is an example of a typical response structure:

1. The Tactical Assault Squadron is deployed when it is necessary to perform aircraft or facilities recovery during or following an illicit interference act where there is seizure of an aircraft, ground-based installations or the taking of hostages. The Tactical Assault Squadron will proceed to release the area to allow entry for the final decontamination tasks by the Emergency Response Team. They will also provide support for other aspects of the operations.

2. The Anti-Explosive Squadron is deployed when there is, or is presumed to be, an improvised explosive device (IED) containing CBRN agents. They are responsible for neutralisation and removal of the element that contains or is suspected of containing a CBRN device.

3. Incident Response Personnel provide support to the Tactical Assault Squadron or the Anti-Explosive Squadron act or intervene in situations of unlawful interference. They are deployed during acts of illicit interference by the release of chemical or radiological agents, where there is no seizure of aircraft or installations or taking of hostages. They may be responsible for the detection and containment of the threat, and decontamination of victims and the affected area.

In acts of illicit interference where there is seizure of an aircraft, installations or the taking of hostages, the Incident Response team will act after the Tactical Assault Squadron liberates the area, containing and decontaminating victims and the affected area.

Incident Response Personnel also provide support to the Anti-Explosive Squadron during neutralisation and removal of the threat. During accidents or incidents, both on board aircraft and in fixed installations, they are also responsible for identification and containment of the substance, and decontamination of victims and the affected area.

In addition, they will be responsible for implementing isolation measures, providing support to health authorities, and eventual decontamination of passengers suspected of being affected by a biological agent.

Staff Requirements

The following trained and equipped personnel are required in the event of a CBRN incident or threat:

1) Tactical Assault Squadron In addition to standard tactical assault training, personnel should also be trained to work in unfavourable environments associated with the presence of chemical agents and/or radioactive material.

2) Anti-explosive Squadron In addition to the standard explosives training, personnel must be trained to deal with artefacts capable of dispersing chemical or biological agents and radiological material (dirty bombs).

3) Personnel Response to Incidents A varying number of personnel will be required depending on the scale of the emergency. Therefore, from an operational point of view, it is not advisable to have a dedicated action team, but a dynamic resource of trained employees with other primary functions, but who can be deployed in the event of an emergency.

The Training of Human Resources

The initial training of personnel, according to their specialty, should be executed in the following way:

1) Tactical Assault Squad:

a. Theoretical Part:
Definitions;

  • Terrorist motivation for the use of CBRN weapons;
  • Historical background (including case studies);
  • Types of CBRN weapons and their capabilities;
  • CBRN availability;
  • Types of airport contingencies;
  • Use of personal protective equipment;
  • Detection of different types of CBRN agents;
  • Explosive material and liberation, dissemination or impact agents;
  • Radiological scattering devices;
  • Decontamination;
  • Antidotes in the field of action;
  • Development of an integrated response.

b. Practical part:

  • Placement and use of personal protection equipment (PPE);
  • Use of detection systems;
  • Decontamination.

2) Anti-explosive Squadron:

a. Theory:

  • Definitions;
  • Terrorist motivation for using CBRN;
  • Historical background including case studies;
  • Types of CBRN weapons and their capabilities;
  • CBRN availability;
  • Types of airport contingencies;
  • Use of personal protective equipment;
  • Detection of different types of CBRN agents;
  • Explosive material and liberation, dissemination or impact agents;
  • Radiological scattering devices;
  • Decontamination;
  • Development of an integrated response.

b. Practice:

  • Use of detection systems;
  • Decontamination.

3) Personnel Response to Incidents:

a. Theory:

  • Definitions;
  • Terrorist motivation for the use of CBRN;
  • Historical background including case studies;
  • Types of CBRN weapons and their capabilities;
  • CBRN availability;
  • Types of airport contingencies;
  • Use of personal protective equipment;
  • Detection of different types of agents;
  • Explosive material and liberation, dissemination or impact agents;
  • Decontamination of people, facilities, vehicles and aircraft;
  • Sterilisation of CBRN received in the mail;
  • Operations on the incident site;
  • Danger of dispersion by the wind;
  • Radiological scattering devices;
  • Stress management in critical incidents;
  • Antidotes;
  • Development of an integrated response.

b. Practice:

  • Placement and use of personal protection equipment (PPE);
  • Use of detection systems;
  • Initial emergency measures; isolation zone and protection zone.
  • Product identification;
  • Neutralisation and removal measures;
  • Evacuation of victims;
  • Decontamination of victims, facilities, vehicles and responders.

Final Considerations

For the implementation of an effective response to a probable CBRN incident in the airport area, the following actions should be executed:

actions table

Given the possibility of a terrorist attack using CBRN weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups, airports must be prepared to provide a quick and effective integrated response. To be effective and responsible, that requires pre-planning, rather than a hastily developed plan of action in the aftermath of an actual attack.

Ricardo Santiago Sferco is a citizen of the Republic of Argentina with 27 years of experience in commercial aeronautical activities
Ricardo Santiago

Ricardo Santiago Sferco is a citizen of the Republic of Argentina with 27 years of experience in commercial aeronautical activities. He specialises in airport security, the transport of dangerous goods by air and supply chain, cargo and mail security, teaching courses on these topics since 2001. Contact: rss1962ar@gmail.com