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Air Force medics ready for future CBRNE threats

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
From a nuclear attack to a biological agent, the potential threats Airmen and Guardians could encounter are numerous, and Air Force Medical Service leaders are eyeing new ways to stay prepared.

The Air Force medics who respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive events, are improving their threat detection and treatment capabilities. Not only are medics preparing to respond to new, diverse potential CBRNE threats, but they are also preparing to respond in newer operational environments.

On U.S. installations and in expeditionary environments, Air Force medics engage in CBRNE threat recognition, patient decontamination, specific threat identification and detection, and medical countermeasures or prevention measures to mitigate the threat.

"We have optimized our casualty care and patient movement response in the last 20 or 30 years in an air-dominance, permissive environment where we had excellent point of injury care, rapid movement to specialized critical care at air hubs, and the ability to fly out patients when we needed to," said Maj. Gen. John DeGoes, Air Force Deputy Surgeon General. "But in a high-end fight, we may not have access to those facilities or may not have the ability to fly out patients when we need to. When faced with a CBRNE threat, we have to learn how to sustain that same capability we have honed in the last three decades in a new, dynamic environment."

A significant aspect of CBRNE response is the recognition of the threat itself to know exactly how to respond.

“There are two ways to look at threat detection,” said Brian Smith, Air Force Medical Counter CBRNE branch chief, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “One is detect to warn where we identify an incoming chemical or biological agent in time to initiate preventive measures like medical countermeasure use, donning gear or evacuation. The other is detect to treat where the threat is identified in time to deliver treatment, minimize damage and save lives.”

Air Force bioenvironmental engineers work alongside other Air Force agencies, like emergency management, to assist CBRNE detection.

“As bioenvironmental engineers, the core of our job is to ensure occupational and environmental health and safety in workspaces,” said Lt. Col. Steven Tang, Bioenvironmental Engineering Readiness Programs chief, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “Because of that expertise, we are skilled in CBRNE response.”

“We have been focusing our training on what we call ‘major conflict operation scenarios,’” said Lt. Col. Steven Tang, Bioenvironmental Engineering Readiness Programs chief, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “In the past, after 9/11, there was an increased focus on terroristic use of CBRNE weapons. Since then, we are looking at the potential use in peer and near-pear conflicts, which could involve different kinds of hazards and different level of skills that we are incorporating in our training.”

Read more: CBRNE defense course keeps Airmen prepared

In addition to advancing detection for new CBRNE threats, training is evolving to the changing operational environment.

“We are changing our concept of operations to match a new dynamic that a CBRNE threat could be anywhere,” said Smith. “While we have done great things in the theaters we are currently operating in, we have to consider how we operate in new environments. Treatment and recognition that could have been done at a higher echelon of care, now need to be done and planned for at all levels.”

The AFMS is also looking towards new technology to help its medics respond to changing threats, such as improved radiation detection systems and lab capabilities that allow medics to identify a wider range of threats even quicker.

“When it comes to future CBRNE events, we have to train to the potential that all of us will have to be CBRNE proficient to take care of ourselves, take care of others and to take care of the mission,” said Smith. “There is no assumption of safety in those scenarios and we all have to be prepared.”