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Fighting Against Time - Kuwait

The members of the biological protection section of the 1st Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection Battalion, currently serving at the Camp Doha in Kuwait as part of the Operation Enduring Freedom, have no more than forty minutes to assemble at a specified location in case of an alert.

(Published: February 2003)

Within the next few minutes they have to leave the base. Their specially equipped vehicles are ready for departure twenty-four hours a day. “We are the only biological protection section within the CJTF, which includes units of the armies of the United States, Germany and the Czech Republic,” Major Aleš Hantsch, D.V.M., says while giving details of the work conditions endured by the section that he commands. “Every time we go out it is a real-world operation, not a training exercise. We have to adapt everything to that here – the training of the soldiers and the readiness of the equipment.”

Learning to live with risk

It is not easy to be constantly on alert and to live with the feeling that a substance in any sample taken might be infected with a dangerous matter of unknown origin. And, to be certain of a sample means having undergone hundreds of hours of hard training. “We truly do not know the hour or minute when and to what kind of test we shall be going,” Dr Hantsch stresses once again before the demonstration starts. “I know what I am talking about. A few days after our arrival the Allies tested our ability and readiness. We managed to identify the sample.”

The present-day laboratory and computer technologies with which the Czech teams are equipped make it possible to identify six types of biological agents. For identification purposes a number of soil, vegetation, and even water samples have to be collected in the field. If necessary, parts or the whole remains of smaller animals have to be taken to the laboratory, depending on the test to be performed. The very process of taking samples requires maximum caution and cannot be carried out by untrained personnel.

This is particularly true when working in special, hermetically closed garments of the LEVEL A type – garments which provide the highest possible level of protection. “The breathing apparatus lasts one and a half to two hours, depending on the outside temperature and lung capacity of the user. This time limitation must also take into account the time needed to disinfect the garments. In other words, you have no more than sixty — at most, seventy — minutes to pick up the sample itself, taking into account the distance to the place of collection and the time of turning it over for analysis. We always collect three samples. Two for testing and a third for storage or for the subsequent analysis in the ‘stone’ laboratories in the United States and other Allied countries,” says the chief of the section to clarify collection conditions.

The signal to move into action is given by the CJTF Commander. The first to leave for an area where toxic materials are thought to have been used is the biological reconnaissance group, equipped with a probe for non-specific detection which can, within certain limits, detect the presence of a biological agent. “The moment the reconnaissance reports a registration of suspicious matter and determines its coordinates by means of GPS, I define the focus of the work and immediately determine the first and second protective zones, as well as the place where the samples are to be turned over,” Major Hantsch adds.

The collection of samples is a procedure requiring one hundred per cent concentration. Any unnecessary movement takes energy and thus shortens the time available for work. The air in the breathing apparatus decreases minute by minute. The place of sample collection has to be marked, everything has to be documented with a camera, and samples have to be enclosed in prepared containers and closed with a special tape. As you are working in the desert, the temperature in the protective garment rises to around 50 degrees Celsius. But the temperature is not the only thing that gives you a bad time. In collecting samples it is difficult to kneel down because there is a risk that the garment might be cut by a sharp stone. If you are collecting plants you must be careful because the desert is full of thorn bushes, with thorns up to a good two centimetres. One prick in the finger and...

Since toxic biological agents would be, in all likelihood, spread in the form of aerosol or spray, there is the risk of “void places”. That is one of the reasons why multiple samples are collected. In determining the place where samples are to be handed over many other factors need to be taken into account, such as the direction of the wind and the articulation of the terrain. “The biological and chemical laboratory has to be located in a ‘clean’ area, and the highest degree of safety measures need to be applied in handing over the samples.”

Yes or no...

Every sample that is subjected to exacting analysis carries the risk of positivity, and work with a device called “Biohazard” takes this into account. Only within this device does it become possible to open the sampling box and cut open the wrapper. “We are working according to the standard operational procedures prescribed for the isolation of DNA,” Major Radoslav Krupka (who is also a veterinary doctor) explains. Together with Warrant Officer Josef Beránek he forms one of the teams of the two biological laboratories which the 1st Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection Battalion has at its disposal at present. “With the aid of instruments and solutions the sample is gradually modified so that it becomes absolutely non-infectious after being taken out, even if it contains, for example, the DNA of anthrax. The resulting sample is put into as many as twenty-four micro-capillary tubes, which are placed into a special apparatus attached to a sensitive computer.” The staff has approximately forty-five minutes to prepare the sample for analysis, and the analysis itself lasts two and a half to three hours. Everybody awaits the outcome of the analysis.

“It is I who pronounces the positive or negative verdict on the basis of the computer assessment, and on the basis of all additional information which I pass on to the commander for a decision,” says Major Hantsch, with the full awareness of what the verdict involves. “If it is negative, I hand over the sample for further treatment in the chemical laboratory. If it were to prove positive, we have to repeat the entire procedure once more. If the result is confirmed, then we treat the entire specified territory as if it were contaminated with a biological combat agent.” In such a case, uncompromising rules begin to apply for the movement of persons and equipment.

While the persons working in protective garments can be disinfected, the fate of equipment is sealed. “It is impossible to decontaminate equipment with hundreds of curves, inaccessible holes and other risky parts. Vehicles, including basic equipment, would be left on the spot in the affected area and the unit would, in such a case, have to be given new equipment. Since the enhancement of our unit we now have at our disposal two fully equipped laboratories, which can be independently used in different places. Our operability has thus increased by one hundred per cent,” Doctor Hantsch says in assessing the present state of the unit’s readiness.

The determination of protective zones follows certain rules. The same is true of the locations of other working groups that are part of the biological protection section, where 27 experts in different branches are employed. There is an identification group, a detection group and a quarantine group. The work of the quarantine group is limited by the capacity of its tents and the number of “biobags” (bags intended for transportation of persons affected by a biological agent) on hand. These would be used to transport persons, if there was the suspicion that they had come into contact with biological combat agents, to medical establishments – to infection hospitals – where all required medical care would be provided. At the present time the battalion has at its disposal 60 “biobags” set aside exclusively for members of the Armed Forces of the Czech Republic. Information has been disseminated that their use for Allied soldiers has not come into consideration. It is assumed that foreign units have the necessary transport capacity to take persons to their respective, national medical establishments. The quarantine tents can also be used as transition points where the disinfection of personnel can be carried out.

The entire biological protection section has at its disposal the means to take action anywhere in the world. The laboratories themselves are mounted on the chassis of trucks, which can be moved by transport aircraft to specified areas on just a few hours’ notice. The equipment of the soldiers and all vehicles are in line with this requirement.

One more question arises: Why is it that doctors of the military veterinary services decide on the results of analyses in biological laboratories belonging to the Czech chemical unit? The answer rests with the fact that the substances of certain toxic biological agents exist primarily in the animal kingdom: anthrax, tularemia and brucellosis, which affect cattle and hares; and plague, which is transmitted by fleas. Before being assigned to positions within the chemical unit the veterinary doctors must have attended postgraduate study courses and obtained diplomas in a number of fields. These courses are provided by experts from both the Veterinary Services and the Military Medical Academy in Hradec Králové.

Written by Jan Procházka, Czech Armed Forces Today, 2/2003

This story was first published: February 2003

The following pictures from joint exercises of Czech and Kuwaiti soldiers were taken by MAJ Luděk Lávička,

spokesman for the Czech battalion in Kuwait

Posted: August 30, 2005