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Walter Reed Bethesda’s Decontamination (DECON) Team raced against the clock on March 26, suiting up in their chemical-resistant suits, fastening their air purifying respirators and setting up a portable decontamination shelter.

Their mission: to be fully dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) and deploy a fully operational decontamination shelter within 15 minutes. The team finished with time to spare, completing the mission in less than eight and a half minutes.

The timed exercise was part of an annual First Receiver Operational Training course, required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), according to Chris Gillette, emergency manager for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).

“The training tested and ensured all DECON equipment is operational, while enhancing the medical center’s preparedness,” Gillette said.

OSHA requires the nation’s hospitals, military and civilian, to establish plans in the event of a hazmat situation, such as a chlorine spill, or an incident involving a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agent, also referred to as a CBRN incident, Gillette explained. According to OSHA standards, the hospital’s DECON program must fulfill 16 hours of decontamination training per year, he said, and at WRNMMC, the DECON team goes above and beyond, training monthly, to hone their skills.

For the fourth consecutive year, WRNMMC’s DECON team completed the OSHA-required training. The three-day course consists of classwork, preparing the team to recognize symptoms of hazmat or CBRN exposure, and culminates with the timed exercise, allowing them to re-enforce their skills, Gillette said.

“The quicker the team can retrieve the portable equipment, the portable shelter, get it set up, and have everything running operationally, be in their personal protective equipment, the better chance we have to start taking care of the greatest number of casualties in the shortest period of time,” Gillette said.

He went on to note the DECON team’s enthusiasm, and how well they work together during training.

Staffed by volunteers, the team includes military and civilian staff from various clinics and departments throughout the medical center, said John Skelly, patient decontamination program manager and National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) program manager.

“They’re really the life-line in a CBRN or hazmat incident, and they take their responsibilities seriously,” Skelly said.

That goes for Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Burke, non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) instructor for Emergency and Tactical Medicine in Hospital Education and Training at WRNMMC. A member of the DECON team since January, Burke is a medic by training. He said he appreciates the opportunity to learn a new aspect of medicine.

“To be able to know what to do [in a CBRN incident], and to actively do something in a situation like that, instead of feeling helpless, is probably the best part,” said Burke, who joined the team about two months ago. Last week’s training was his first full “dress rehearsal,” he said, and it was “awesome.” He added being involved with the team is a valuable opportunity, especially for those who transition to a new duty station, and can be that “go-to” person.

“This training will stick with you for your entire military career, especially for medical personnel,” Burke said.

Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Marksteven Meneses, NCOIC/leading petty officer for WRNMMC’s Respiratory Therapy Department, echoed similar sentiments. He brings relevant experience from his previous commands to the team.

“On my last two carriers (CVN 72 - USS Abraham Lincoln and CVN 74 - USS John C. Stennis), I was one of two medical personnel trained and qualified in radiological decontamination,” Meneses said. “My previous experience helped me grasp knowledge we were given, and makes me feel like a much more seasoned team member.”

A member of the team since December 2013, Meneses expressed his appreciation for the advanced technology, including the state-of-the-art equipment, and the highly in-depth and hands-on training.

“What I enjoy most is that I know I’m now part of a highly specialized team, that I know will perform superbly, if there ever was a real-world response,” said Meneses.

In addition to the DECON team, WRNMMC Emergency Department staff members are also trained to respond to a CBRN or hazmat incident, Skelly added. They will likely be the ones where patients arrive in a real-life situation, and they are equipped with a fixed decontamination facility, within the department, where they can begin decontamination efforts. Meanwhile, the DECON team would deploy to accommodate an even larger volume of casualties, he explained.

Skelly noted the medical center is recognized as one of the best trained and best equipped for a hazmat or CBRN incident, and other hospitals in the region often look to WRNMMC when developing their programs.

“We’re doing things the right way,” Skelly said. “We’re well equipped to deal with a broad spectrum of hazmat type events.”

Staff members who are interested in joining the DECON team may contact Chris Gillette at 301-295-3115, or John Skelly at 301-295-5202.