In the summer of 2019, the South Carolina 43rd Civil Support Team (CST) received a call from local law enforcement asking for help. Officers had encountered an unknown substance in the field while arresting a suspect for operating a makeshift pill pressing laboratory. They weren’t sure how to identify the substance, but they knew enough to be worried. The highly addictive opioid, Fentanyl, at that time was emerging as a recurring threat — not only to civilians but to law enforcement officers who can become dosed or overdosed with the drug even when moving it into property and evidence.
Fortunately, just two weeks before, members of the 43rd CST had attended an NSRI course on pharmaceutical-based agents with their counterparts in Indianapolis with the 45th Indiana CST. The two-day event, held in Indianapolis, had been led by Daniel Polanski, NSRI’s deputy director of field operations and training. The event included hands-on practical stations on pill manufacturing, decontamination, analysis of fentanyl analogs and improvised synthesis laboratories. NSRI’s director of chemical programs, Dr. Thomas Mueller, led the group through the manufacture, analysis and safe disposal of one of the precursors needed in the synthesis process.
The 43rd CST team used this new information they learned from NSRI to assist law enforcement officers with the identification of the white powders as Fentanyl, helping them avoid harm to themselves and civilians.
Readying Responders to Fight Evolving Threats
Weapons of mass destruction, terrorist threats, illicit drug manufacturing and infectious disease are constantly evolving. Civil Support Teams, law enforcement, HAZMAT teams, medical personnel and state and federal policymakers across the nation have a tremendous responsibility to keep citizens safe. To do that, they must learn new facts as quickly as possible about chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats (CBRNe).
NSRI constantly evolves with these threats and trains responders through up-to-date, technically accurate, immersive courses and exercises that can be customized to specific mission requirements. The team addresses aspects of all CBRNe hazards, as well as testing, protocols, policies and recordkeeping tools that impact operations. NSRI’s events also help build relationships, which can be critical to successful responses to dangerous scenarios.
The classes NSRI teaches are unique in that they combine hands-on practical exercises and lectures from some of the best subject matter experts in the field. The NSRI threat-based training team carries a full lab of equipment to trainings, and the students build labs themselves. This gives responders a deep knowledge of the scenarios they are likely to enter in the field – and a better chance of safely resolving incidents. This is especially important for those who haven’t yet experienced a real event.
The ability to respond tactically to this type of threat begins with science. NSRI’s training team works closely with the best available biological, chemical and radiological subject matter experts and University of Nebraska researchers to design the courses, serving as a bridge between academic knowledge and practical needs in the field. In addition to conveying this knowledge through its own offerings, the NSRI team conducts joint training programs with high-level national and international counterparts.
The NSRI field operations and training team is led by Wes Carter who served in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) for 21 years with a primary focus in WMD training and response. He held several U.S. Army positions related to infectious diseases, counterterrorism and emergency response. He has deployed to 23 different countries for disease investigation and outbreak response. Carter has recruited a team with similar depth of experience to ensure NSRI’s courses continue to be known as leading edge, top-tier, proven-effective trainings that lead to realistic response success. “We do this because we believe in the mission,” Polanski said. “We have been in the shoes of our students, so we know what their needs are.”
Anticipating and Responding to Evolving Threats
The deep knowledge and significant experience of NSRI’s field operations and training team was leveraged by several agencies and leaders within the COVID-19 response.
Jacob Ferry, former Army Special Forces Medic turned organizational psychology doctoral student and NSRI deputy director of field operations and training plans and programs, participated as a consultant to Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts’ COVID-19 response task force as well as the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) public health task force. Given his background, Ferry provided a high-level perspective across the scope of the state’s response, including testing, public health outcomes and data analysis.
As the world continues to navigate COVID-19 mitigation, NSRI is also evolving its training, which has traditionally been delivered in classrooms, outdoor venues and practice laboratories with groups of students ranging from 20 to several hundred. The team’s expansion before the virus was impressive. Requests for NSRI training courses increased 11 percent from 2018 to 2019 and revenue had more than quadrupled.
Given that this type of defense training can literally be a matter of life and death, the team continues to offer its leading in-person options whether on-site or at an NSRI facility. In addition, within just a few months of the pandemic, the team began leveraging hybrid in-person and virtual opportunities and is developing a deployable version of an in-house designed virtual TTX simulation software.
Tangible Steps Toward 21st-Century Threat-Based Training Solutions
Transport of Highly Infectious Patients
In 2018, the NSRI threat-based training team was asked by the University of Nebraska to assist with a government contract exploring ways to safely transport infectious patients. The team helped set standards and develop curriculum to teach first responders, military units and medical personnel. The program originally was designed as a response to Ebola, but the project is now relevant to COVID-19. The NSRI team will take a class to medical personnel across the nation and throughout the world.
New Laboratory Training
At the beginning of the two-year period covered by this report, the NSRI training team created a new course to teach WMD responders field laboratory identification. While most local and regional CST teams have lab suites, they don’t get to go downrange and do the decontamination and other things that happen on-site, essentially taking samples with little context. NSRI’s course puts lab personnel skills to the test. This is crucial. If personnel never get to the field with their equipment, they lose proficiency. The course was presented to public health departments and agencies throughout the DOD.
Rural Nebraska Coordinated Preparedness Training
In August 2019, the threat-based training team facilitated the first disaster preparedness exercise in NSRI’s home state with western Nebraska community hospitals. Participants in the full scale disaster simulation included health care and public health staff, EMS professionals, local law enforcement, emergency management personnel and community residents. The event was organized through a $3 million grant award to Nebraska Medicine from the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. The purpose was to identify gaps in coordinated patient care during disasters and learn how to use a new communications system called Knowledge Center. The ultimate goal, of course, was to save lives during real disasters.
It’s important for NSRI training personnel to go into the field to stay relevant. In October 2017, the NSRI threat-based training team was asked by a Department of Defense sponsor to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and collect critical samples for an ongoing project. A genomics lab at the University of Nebraska had been unable to continue with a project because the government ran out of money for samples, which each cost $17,000 to produce.Learn More
Coordinate, Analyze, Develop, Advise, Instruct: Mantra of the Nation’s Top WMD Trainers