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Tech. Sgt. Chris McCrary surveys a suspected chemical bomb laboratory. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Melanie Casineau)
By Capt. Matthew T. Mutti, 104th Fighter Wing  

Police are often called upon after an incident in order to preserve and document evidence, aiding them in determining who is responsible, and eventually prosecute, the offenders.  Sometimes, the situation is too dangerous or unpredictable, like in the event of a chemical, biological, or radiological incident, and that is when the members of the 104th Civil Engineer Readiness and Emergency Management Flight get the call. They are responsible to enter the crime scene to both identify and gather evidence but to also ensure safety of the other responding agencies.

During Exercise Silver Flag, this team was put to the test to see how they would cope with multiple attacks of unknown substances.  In many cases, the attacks would present themselves as ‘chem-bio weapons labs’ or agents released by missiles which, in real-world, could translate into multiple casualties.  

“Before we can go in and clean the area of the hazard, we need to establish a safe area, figure out what the agent is, all while documenting the scene for later investigations, said Staff Sgt. Karla Belliveau, a member of the Readiness and Emergency Management Flight. “As we approach a potential hazard we have to be very cautious and test the area for potential exposure.”

The team uses the latest in government and commercial detection equipment from radiation detectors, to devices that “sniff” for odors emitted from different agents.  As they approach a contaminated site, they take photographs of the surroundings, being careful to preserve the area as it is found.

“We have about 30 minutes in a site to conduct our work when wearing the enclosed breathing apparatus,” said Tech Sgt. Chris McCrary, also a Readiness member at the 104th Fighter Wing. “As we go to the scene, we document all of our actions, leave a trail of glow sticks for others to follow, and sketch the layout of the area for the team that replaces us.”

A real-world scene investigation would take hours, and the team must be careful not to miss any potential evidence.  The team will sample the ground and parts of the building as well to determine whether the contamination will spread outside the cordoned area.  All documentation is then passed on to the follow-on teams for continued work, and a successful resolution.

As I witnessed this exercise first hand, I realized how extensive it was, and how intense a situation can become. The members of this team may come in contact with dangers that, if not protected against, could cause certain death.  The next time you watch a television program on crime scene investigation, think about how different it would be if the police officers preserving evidence for the investigation were wearing scuba gear under a space-suit, and were working around flesh-melting chemical vapors.
3/3/2009