Airport, county emergency workers preparing for worst

By Ed Brock

Feeling its way up the metal ramp, the robot clutches a suspicious package in its glittering claw and approaches the huge, black metal sphere.

It deposits its hazardous cargo on a shelf in the sphere and backs away. Officers with the Atlanta Police Department's K-9/Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport close the door on the sphere remotely while standing at a safe distance.

Once the package is sealed inside the Airport Police unit's new airtight containment vessel the bomb squad can take care of it.

"If an explosive device is attached to a canister of something bad, we can render it safe," said EOD Unit member Sgt. Robert Bailey.

Hartsfield-Jackson officials managed to choose an appropriate day to unveil the new equipment, which includes the containment vessel and a 25,500-pound truck. As a second round of terrorist attacks in London underscored the need for such equipment, firefighters with the Atlanta Fire Department's Airport Fire Operations at Hartsfield-Jackson were training to deal with weapons of mass destruction.

And Clayton County firefighters were studying to become hazardous material technicians.

Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Ben DeCosta said the need for the new bomb disposal equipment is ongoing.

"While safety and security has always been a priority among airport directors, in most of the nation since 9/11 it has been even more of a priority," DeCosta said. "I believe that Americans should not be distracted by looking at what's happening in the world and know that their government officials are looking at the big picture."

A $200,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security paid for the $165,000 truck, the containment vessel and the REMOTEC Andros robot. Not only can the new containment vessel safely hold dangerous bio-chemical material, technicians can use the "bread box," an X-ray machine that digitally analyzes the contained devices, to determine what's inside them.

Bailey said the bomb squad can also take a sample of the agent that is released inside to send away for further analysis.

The vessel cannot be used to hold radioactive material, however.

But just having the equipment isn't enough. Bailey said the members of the unit must constantly train on using the robots (the new Andros is one of two such machines the unit has with another on order) and other equipment. Attacks like the ones that occurred Thursday in London are also like a training experience for EOD technicians around the world.

His department works with the FBI who will learn from their counterparts in England about the devices used in Thursday's attack.

"It's all about information being passed along," Bailey said.

In the Thursday attacks four devices were detonated simultaneously on three subway trains and a bus. While the devices appeared to be faulty or two small to cause much damage and caused no deaths and few injuries, the new attack came exactly two weeks after a similar bombing of London's transportation system that killed 52 people.

The Department of Homeland Security is also providing equipment for the WMD training airport firefighters are undergoing this week, Fire Training Instructor Gary Askew said. The equipment includes cameras and other devices that can detect various biological, chemical and radioactive agents used in WMDs.

"It's like the kind of thing you see on (the television show) 'CSI,'" Askew said.

Along with crime scene investigation the firefighters are learning how to interact with other agencies that would be participating in any investigation if a WMD is used against the airport.

Meanwhile, the Clayton County Fire Department is also increasing its readiness for terrorist attacks and other catastrophes with a hazardous materials technician training course for several firefighters. In a lot next door to Station House 13 in Jonesboro firefighters in fully contained Level A, spacesuit-like hazmat suits waved the wand of an air quality monitor about their head and explored a "chemical spill" amid some overturned barrels.

The "entry team" then relayed information to other firefighter/students inside the station who were part of the "research unit." They plied through heavy textbooks full of information on various chemicals.

"In a fire we know the hazards," Clayton County Fire Capt. Amy Nix said.

In a hazmat situation anything could happen.

The training is part of the department's efforts to form its first hazmat unit, Assistant Chief Jeff Hood said. On Thursday instructors like Fulton County Fire Capt. Randall Blanchard were able to help them directly with tips.

"If they live or die tomorrow it's up to them," Blanchard said.

The course is offered by the Georgia Fire Academy. This one included 27 people, six from the Atlanta Fire Department and one from the fire prevention service of Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems in Marietta.