MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- It was a normal day. Marines at the Combat Center’s post office were lugging through and sorting the heaps of mail delivered to them that morning. A Marine picked up a package to read its destination. It was addressed to the commanding general sent from the President of the United States. However, the package didn’t look very official. It was poorly packaged, with spelling mistakes in the address and excessive postage stamps. Parts of it were oily and upon closer inspection a white powder was seen coming out of the corners. The Marine immediately put down the package and stepped away.
Combat Center Marines and first responders conducted a hazardous material scenario at the post office, May 21, 2014, as part of Postal Exercise 2014.
“We need to make sure the instructions and guidelines are strong, properly practiced and are being constantly checked,” said Luis Sanchez, exercise planner, Exercise Team West, Headquarters Marine Corps. “One thing we’ve learned is that any type of situation can occur anywhere at random times. It’s not a matter of what if this happens, it’s when.”
The exercise was coordinated by Exercise Team West and supported by the Combat Center Fire Department, post office, Provost Marshal’s Office and Force Protection. Leaders from each section were present to evaluate the performance of the responders.
“If there are any short falls or strengths, we want to be sure to identify those and include them in the after action report,” Sanchez said. “So if it’s something we need to fix, we can go back and do that just to make their program stronger. If it’s a strength, it can be shared with other bases.”
The exercise began in the morning once mail clerks noticed the package. They followed the protocol they have been trained in and notified emergency services. Two Marines, considered to have already been “contaminated,” stayed behind as the rest of the building was ordered to evacuate.
The first to arrive were the PMO officers. The officers quarantined the two contaminated Marines outside and questioned them about the package their contamination and what did to prevent further contamination. The two Marines explained the situation and reported that they had a slight headache and some stomach problems.
“Just because there is a powder doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Sanchez said. “Now, if someone started to show symptoms that are tied to certain types of agents, that’s one more clue.”
The situation was deemed hazardous and the area was cordoned by PMO. They rerouted traffic and prevented anyone from entering the area until the Combat Center Fire Department arrived.
The information collected was passed off to the fire captain, who arranged for his men to enter the building.
Six firemen geared up into hazmat suits and split into three even teams.
The firefighters were outfitted with masks in place, hooked up to a clean air supply carried on their backs. Their breathing was audible in the silent building, only challenged by the crackling of the devices they held in their hands. The first team entered the building, guided to the package by the directions passed to them by PMO and their fire captain.
They always conduct a radiological detection, said Grove Crank, fire captain, Combat Center Fire Department. The team didn’t know what they were walking into, just like a real scenario.
“I don’t like to pre-plan these, because you don’t get to test yourself as much,” Crank said. “We’re always given a time table [for these exercises], but I like to hold it back [from the firefighters] as much as possible. I like to be thrown into it to test our true capabilities.”
The suspicious package was isolated in the center of the floor. The hazmat team stepped up to it slowly, surveying the area around them for any spills of the reported white powder. They carefully opened the box and broke out a sampling kit to begin the process of identifying the powder and any other questionable material found inside the package.
“The first team went in to get a good eye at what we’re looking at and started some quick sampling,” Crank said. “Then we sent another team in to try to identify [the substances]. Then we sent the third team in to package up the product.”
The powder was notionally confirmed as the hazardous material, Resin. The last team exited the building and was scrubbed clean, just like the teams before them. The area was sealed off and the exercise ended.
Exercise Team West conducts multiple emergency scenarios throughout the year at different bases on the West Coast. Postal Exercise 2014 tested the training and reactions to the scenario. The exercise helped prepare service members for possible emergencies in the future.