Increased chatter picked up by an allied intelligence service through SIGINT (signals intelligence) leads to a tip to US authorities on a ‘dark web’ site set up by a domestic terrorist cell with ties to a known international organisation. Kevin Cresswell explains what happened next.

In coordination with other Federal entities, the US Secretary of Homeland Security issues an ‘Elevated’ Threat Alert through the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), warning of a credible terrorist threat against the United States from chemical/biological agents. Police in Edgewood MD were tipped off to suspicious activity at a deserted farm building.

Assessing the threat
Upon arrival, officers noticed a workbench with UAS (unmanned aircraft system) parts, batteries, and unidentified chemical containers. SIGINT chatter suggests the containers contain freeze-dried, genetically altered Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) spores.

An assessment team jump-starts the exercise by entering a suspected contaminated area to detect possible chemical agents, assess and report damage to critical infrastructure, and identify any possible chemical casualties who needed first aid and then extract them from the area.

This was just one scenario briefed to professional responder teams from all over the USA who converged during NCTUSA 2022 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. ‘NCT PRO Training’ education must always be innovative and progressive, adapting the training to meet the probability of challenges.

The leading sponsor of the entire event, ADS, Inc., managed two of the training lanes with their training provider, FarrWest. Other sponsoring companies like EZ-Stak and M2DCON provided equipment (and training) which teams were able to use to fulfil their mission objectives.

Realistic training
Training with the right resources allowing for that element of actuality is critical. It prevents a loss of appetite and training becoming stale. Much of the design and innovation in this training was aimed at generating authenticity.

To be truly effective, organisations must train under conditions that are as realistic as possible. Hazmat or CBRNE circumstances are so uniquely challenging that they cannot be completely replicated outside of reality itself.

The NCTPRO training had four components:

  1. The theme – to raise 360 situational awareness at the scene.
  2. The objective – to train and determine individual and collective roles and responsibilities in preparing for, responding to, and recovering evidence from a CBRNE crime scene.
  3. The conditions – provide realistic circumstances in which the task is expected to be performed.
  4. The standards – to achieve a reasonable level of competence and effectiveness in conducting the task. These included the speed at which the task was to be performed, the accuracy of collection, the maintenance of evidence integrity, and safety.

Chief Instructor of NCT PRO Experience, George McKerrow said: “This year I watched great teams going through the training. My main point was not to get to focused on just looking at your instruments for detection, but instead be situational aware and you will notice other key indicators that might well make you readjust your threat assessment which needs to be constantly assessed: the absence of the normal and presence of the abnormal.”

 I have always been an exponent of training for reality throughout my career, whether it is realistic interrogations in conduct after capture training for military air crew; use of petrol bombs and missiles in riot control training; real weapons in self defence for law enforcement; or testing homemade explosive with colorimetric test kits. Whenever I have been in the role of trainer, I have always trained for reality and big-picture visualisation.

The 360 big picture
On numerous driving courses during my law enforcement career we were always taught to observe 15-20 seconds ahead – and as a skilled driver, we learned to adjust focus backwards and forwards, so that you were always aware of everything that’s going on around.

This 360 big-picture approach is the opposite of thinking about the minute details directly in front of you. You are looking at a collection of information in a clandestine lab and seeing the entire room, rather than seeing the individual powders on the table. The tripwire across the door, UAS parts in the corner, the invoice for precursor materials, the marked map on the wall, the phone number on the back of that rail ticket, etc. Essentially, being a big-picture responder can grasp initial concepts more easily and be cognisant to the evidential chain of integrity.

Perception, Prediction and Processing
FarrWest Chief Instructor Mike Parsons said: “After thorough recon of the area the team identified 11 white powder sources of concern and recommended collecting from 90% purified bin as sample of interest. Before the entry team collecting samples, I advised [that] IED and rad sources should have been hard-stop and mitigation performed.“

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should never just take you halfway. The skills and abilities to deal not just the inevitable but the improbable are enhanced through improved situational awareness at the scene. It is not just practice that makes a first responder or service personnel perfect. It is perfect practice – and to be as realistic as possible and push the situational awareness envelope as far as measured risk will allow. Avoid a total focus solely on instrumentation and be situational aware – by using your natural senses in order to evaluate the Absence of the Normal and the Presence of the Abnormal!

Kevin Cresswell is Business Development Director for the Defense Equipment Company.

Conducting big-picture assessment before instrumentation.