Cobra Training

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness announced that the Center will resume nerve agent and biological training at the Cobra Training Facility. Kirsten Fiscus / The Anniston Star

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Center for Domestic Preparedness is a vital part of the Calhoun County community and plays a unique role in training America’s first responders to meet the needs of their communities when a disaster occurs.

Safety has always been our foremost concern, and over the past year we have taken an extensive, holistic review of all operations at our Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological Training Facility (COBRATF), working to provide students and staff an even safer training environment. The COBRATF prepares responders to effectively respond to real-world incidents involving chemical agents and biological materials.

Last fall, we learned that we had been receiving a more toxic form of ricin than we had ordered and, out of an abundance of caution, we suspended the use of not only ricin but anthrax (another biological substance) and the nerve agents GB (Sarin) and VX, in training. To be absolutely clear, there has been no indication that any of the 3,079 students who previously trained with ricin at the COBRATF, the staff, nor members of the surrounding community, were harmed.

As we restart training, I want to update the community on our work over the past year.

We have an improved process for acquiring ricin. The CDP will purchase ricin A-chain (the less toxic strain) from a different vendor in the Centers for Disease Control’s Select Agent Program -- one which we’ve vetted. Once an order is placed, it will be sent from the vendor to DHS’s National Bioforensic Analysis Center and analyzed before being shipped to the CDP (thereby ensuring third-party validation of the material prior to it being received here in Anniston).

Multiple third-party reviews, including those made by the Federal Occupational Health Agency, the American Biological Safety Association (ABSA), two U.S. Army organizations, and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Compliance and Assurance Program Office, have also helped make operations at the COBRATF safer than ever. The ABSA review, in fact, resulted in the accreditation of the facility’s biological program and lab.

Other enhancements include:

• Stronger compliance through changes in the type of personal protective gear – including National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved masks – which will be worn by students and staff members.

• Improvements to the facility’s ventilation system, which will allow more precise control of the air flow and pressure in the training bays where the agents and biologicals are used.

• Improved governance with the formation of an advisory board for the facility, which is being created, that will include representatives from a number of national occupational safety and health, operational, and compliance assurance offices.

The CDP is looking forward to resuming this important aspect of our training, which ensures our nation’s responders are prepared for and capable of safely responding to the most serious chemical and biological threats and hazards.

The people of the city of Anniston and Calhoun County are an important part of the CDP experience for the more than 1 million students who have attended courses here since we opened our doors in 1998. You are our neighbors, friends, and colleagues. The safety of this community has always been and will remain a top priority for every member of the CDP team. The enhancements to the COBRATF make the CDP and, by extension, Calhoun County an even safer and more desirable place for first responders and emergency managers to receive this valuable training.

Tony Russell is acting superintendent of the Center for Domestic Preparedness at McClellan.