- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

A police officer wearing something resembling a spacesuit bursts through the doorway of the charred chasm that is an Alexandria apartment. Carrying an M-16 rifle, he glaces around warily as his fire department colleagues move to secure a large gas tank, vials of powder and other noxious substances that simulate a narcotics lab.
Smokes fills the room. It smells like cotton candy, giving away the simulation.
"Under a real situation, hazmat teams would be working through smoke," said Battalion Chief Joe Hoffmaster, who added that the smoke flavor du jour is pina colada. "We are hoping to get them used to working in an environment like this."
Northern Virginia emergency personnel yesterday simulated a hazardous-materials operation, climaxing a class on how to handle these situations. The 24 student police officers and firefighters from Alexandria, Arlington, Prince William and the Washington Airport Authority have undergone two weeks of training in an effort to improve response teams since September 11. They put what they learned to practice in the vacant apartment building lent for their use.
"We are training them to deal with chemical, biological and nuclear hazardous material," said Capt. John North of Alexandria Fire Department. "We tried to make it as real as we could. Typically, drug labs are found after a fire or explosion."
The genesis of the program came after an incident last fall in which a man brandished a chemical at a Maryland Metro station. The hazardous-materials team couldn't act because it was a criminal matter, fire officials said. Police officers had a difficult time because they were not trained to deal with hazardous materials. Officials from different emergency-response agencies decided it was time to put together a team that could act quickly throughout the region.
Yesterday was the beginning.
The students donned green or orange suits with oxygen tanks underneath. Some mapped out routes and safe havens in the building, while others set up a "decontamination corridor" where emerging teams would be "cleaned." One group entered at a time, going up the stairs to the third-floor apartment. Inside, charred furniture and peeling black walls greeted the team members. They sealed off a large drum that usually would be filled with chemicals to make crystal methamphetamine, a narcotic. They scooped up powder in jars and liquid in a vial for analysis.
This time it is only flour and syrup. A firefighter takes a picture of the scene while a police officer secures it.
Kurt Heindricks, 31, a firefighter with Prince William Fire and Rescue, said the county decided to increase its capability to deal with hazardous materials. "We had a situation at a high school science lab and weren't trained to deal with it," he said. "We had to call Arlington and Alexandria. This will increase our awareness of hazmat and how to deal with it."
Washington Airport Authority technician Paul Roxenberg said, "We get quite a bit of hazmat passing through [Washington Dulles International] Airport. What everyone has gone through since September 11 has changed lives and the way we work."
Police officer Steve Carr with Alexandria's Special Operations Team described the training as difficult. "It is very technical with tests every day and studying every night," he said. "The suit is a new experience it's hot and heavy and feels claustrophobic."
He said the training is important to create a heightened awareness to hazardous materials and international and domestic terrorism.
"We need to be vigilant on the streets," he said. "Beat officers know what doesn't look right in their area. It may be a broken down car and it may not."


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