Langley Bioenvironmental Engineering: protection through detection

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Pamela Arellano
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The hiss of a respirator pulsed rhythmically as alien-like figures, swathed in fluorescent yellow and blue plastic suits, waved chemical detection equipment over a row of jars and test tubes filled with a mysterious brown substance.

This surreal scene was the culmination of a sequence of mysterious events. A security forces Airman reported seeing the strange substances and smelling something earthy, "like something that was outside, but it was coming from inside." Investigators began to scribble notes, compare data and confer quietly.

While this may seem the stuff of science fiction, it was simulated reality for Langley Air Force Base Bioenvironmental Engineering technicians, during an integrated base response training exercise at Langley's Raptor Town training facility May 17. The five-day exercise was a workshop that provided emergency base responders with an opportunity to employ homeland defense and expeditionary detection equipment in realistic scenarios.

The goal of the workshop was to improve the overall incident response abilities of bioenvironmental engineering, fire and emergency services, and civil engineering emergency management personnel by encouraging realistic training and improving proficiency.

Such scenarios are the bread and butter of bioenvironmental engineering, or 'bio' for short, who, as part of the 633rd Medical Group, execute the critical mission of protecting the personnel and assets of the 633rd Air Base Wing and its surrounding community from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear contamination and illness. With the information they gather, bio provides operational health risk assessment expertise to support health services and aid the commander in decision making.

As first responders, bio has the capability of keeping CBRN threats at bay. On a day to day basis, they monitor and recommend treatment for hazards like noise pollution and water contaminants.

"We provide occupational and environmental health surveillance activities to over 90 industrial areas in three wings on the base through on-site visits and inspections," said Maj. Greg Garrison, 633rd Medical Group bioenvironmental engineering flight commander. "Surveillance includes ensuring the base complies with application laws and regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Defense and Air Force occupational safety and health standards."

Protecting the public is a critical mission. Lives can be at stake, and the technicians of bio take that mission seriously.

"When we go into an all-hazards situation, we don't know what [the threat] is. We take in our equipment and collect samples and take readings with instruments," said Senior Airman Jessica Kettering, bioenvironmental engineering technician. "One could measure radiation while another could measure for certain chemicals. With that information, we help determine how to better protect personnel."

Bio troops like Kettering play a critical role in emergency-response situations, gathering information to piece together clues about possible hazards. But they don't work alone. As part of a well-trained team, they work side by side with fire and rescue personnel and emergency managers.

"We each have a different piece to play when we respond," said Airman 1st Class Evan Bialk, 633rd Civil Engineer Squadron emergency manager and exercise participant. "We're emergency responders. Bio goes in with their equipment and handles the situation to get a greater degree of certainty of what [the threat] is, and while we get the information too, they analyze the information on how it's going to affect the base."

Bialk acknowledges that exercises like these are essential to readiness.

"It's not every day you get a call for a real-world event, so most of our experience comes through our exercises. This gives us the ability to determine how our plans work; this keeps us current and helps us get better."

The importance of realistic training with Langley first responders is evident to the entire team, including the Airmen of bio.

"I have been doing this for a little over two years and, thank goodness, I have not used this [emergency training] in a real-world situation," echoed Kettering. "Exercises like these help us practice for the real thing."

Part of that practice involves donning real-world protective gear, such as gas masks equipped with respirators and chemical protection suits worn over ice-lined cooling vests, which make working in the near 90-degree heat tolerable.

"We wear a full-encapsulating suit," Kettering explained. "We're doing an all-hazards approach to protect us from any kind of CBRN hazard that's out there. We don't know what kind of situation we're going into."

Garrison is understandably proud of the work his Airmen do, as well as the risks they are willing to take to keep the base and its personnel safe and operational.

"I was amazed at the ability of our enlisted Airmen to expertly demonstrate their responder skills in this training," he stated. "The three disciplines representing medical and mission support teams understood their objectives, worked together flawlessly as a cohesive team and demonstrated extraordinary understanding and application of the tools and resources needed to respond to an all-hazards CBRN incident."

The final scenario presented to the team during the exercise, titled 'Facility Survey,' was a hazardous-materials response to a terrorist lab contaminated with unknown biological and radiological materials. Together, they identified the hazard and mitigated the threat.

With the simulated threat of test tubes and jars packed away in boxes, and the protective gear, equipment and diagnostic tools stowed in cases and trailers, the Airmen of Langley Bioenvironmental Engineering returned to their offices, prepared to take on any chemical, biological, or radiological threat that may occur. With the Airmen of bioenvironmental on duty, the Langley community can have peace of mind knowing they are always ready to protect.