Arundel's bioterror squad specialists in many fields

Officials are part chemist, rescuer, disaster assessor

November 12, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

When Fire Capt. Keith Swindle shows up to check one of the hundreds of "suspicious packages" that prompt panicked calls to emergency lines, it looks like NASA has landed an astronaut in suburbia.

Outfitted in gear that resembles a neon moon suit, Swindle is covered from head to toe in protective layers, and he breathes from an air tank on his back.

As commander of Anne Arundel County's hazardous materials squad, Swindle is part of the front-line response to bioterrorism. He is part chemist, part rescuer, part disaster assessor, part public educator. He and his counterparts in counties throughout Maryland and nationwide are like no other public safety officials.

Firefighters see billowing smoke and rescue people. Swindle sees white powder and comforts anthrax-panicked people.

His fellow firefighters are equipped with hoses and medical supplies. Swindle uses test kits and plastic bags.

While police officers are searching suspects for guns or knives, Swindle is trying to determine whether a box contains a weapon of mass destruction or a surprise birthday present.

"It's a different world," says Swindle, a 20-year firefighter who has completed 500 hours of specialized training, including a college-level chemistry class.

Swindle's equipment begins to show how different his work is.

He pulls out a one-piece protective suit from a side compartment of a 28-foot, bright-yellow hazardous materials truck, which carries only some of the tools he needs. A chase van follows the truck with plastic wading pools that can be filled with water and bleach solutions to decontaminate responders or victims who come in contact with dangerous materials.

Putting on the protective gear can take 15 minutes or more.

"It's like being in a cocoon," says Swindle, during a recent shift at Jones Beach Station, where the suits are stored carefully in boxes.

The most secure suit -- called a level A -- is reserved for the most dangerous situations. At $550 each, they usually are worn once. The suit is made from material that feels like tarp -- not even vapors can penetrate the airtight fabric.

The air Swindle exhales from his air mask will stay in the suit until the pressure is high enough for the valves to release air.

The humidity and heat are almost unbearable. In 45 minutes, Swindle will lose several pounds from sweating. He carries a small towel inside the suit so he can pull his arm from the sleeve and wipe condensation from the mask.

Even without condensation, the "windshield" limits peripheral vision. "Someone can easily sneak up on you," Swindle says.

To communicate, Swindle has a microphone attached to his throat and small earpiece connected to the radio system. He pushes a small button clipped to his shirt pocket inside the suit to talk.

As hard as it is to see and hear, it's even harder to move.

"You have to exaggerate every movement," Swindle says.

Two layers of gloves -- the inner like a surgical glove, the outer layer made of a material that feels like rubber -- make it impossible to write, at least legibly. "It's like wearing four pairs of gloves," says Swindle.

Yet he must use tiny tubes and droppers to mix solutions and to test samples.

"Practice makes perfect," he says.

Swindle and his crew members are definitely getting practice. They've gone from responding to 15 calls in a month countywide before the anthrax attacks to more than 150 in the past month, though the pace has slowed in the past week.

For most calls, the hazardous materials crew isn't needed, because the letter or package is unopened and can be sealed and taken away by firefighters.

When the hazardous materials crew does respond to a scene because someone has been exposed to a potentially dangerous agent, they generally wear minimal protective gear -- a suit that looks as if it's made from a giant reinforced paper towel.

They pull out sealed test kits and swab a sample of the suspicious material. Using an eyedropper, they mix the sample with deionized water and carefully put it onto a card about the size of a narrow pocket calculator.

In 15 minutes, small lines appear that indicate whether the sample is positive or negative for anthrax. They also can test for six other contaminants on the spot.

Some samples have been sent to the state's laboratory in Baltimore, Swindle says. All have come back negative.

The crew also has a $12,000 chemical agent monitor that looks like a radar detector. It tests the air for 100 chemicals, including mustard agent. Swindle opens the monitor case, looking for the most important component. In a second, he holds up a package of new batteries.

"Not everything is sophisticated," he says.

Only in rare cases, when someone is at high risk for exposure to a deadly agent, do those who respond put on the level A suits. That's happened twice in Anne Arundel since the anthrax attacks.

"The biggest part of the job is gathering information to determine what the threat is," Swindle says.

Much of Swindle's job involves calming people, explaining that there's little chance terrorists, having attacked New York and Washington, will target a grocery store in Glen Burnie.

At the same time, he says, emergency workers are ready for worst-case scenarios. "We're well-prepared and well-trained to handle any type of situation."

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