Firefighter Thomas Wood and firefighter/paramedic Steven King of the Stonewall Jackson Volunteer Fire Department in Manassas help teach the week-long, 40-hour course at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Domestic Preparedness, the course teaches police officers, firefighters, state emergency managers and emergency medical technicians from all over the country the skills to evaluate and respond effectively to incidents of terrorism involving hazardous materials and other weapons of mass destruction. The course culminates with an exploding 1,000-pound car bomb, which the students help load with Ammonium Nitrate and Fuel Oil (ANFO) — the same explosive used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Wood said the course was created in 1999, and since then, about 80 classes are taught a year. Both he and King teach about 16-20 classes a year, and each class has about 32 students. There are 15 modules of instruction included in the training program, including 11 classroom sessions, three field laboratories, and one or more case studies.
“The demand was so high for the classes, they ran about two a week,” Wood said. “We [he and King] go out there about eight to 10 times a year.”
The 44-square-mile area where the students are taught is near the site of the first nuclear test explosion, according to King. Students who take the course become certified instructors of a four-hour “awareness level” version of class, and can then teach it to first responders in their community. King said recent graduates of the course have trained more than 100 first responders in Prince William County at the awareness level.
“The desert in New Mexico is one of the only places where firefighters can go and see these kinds of explosions,” King said. “It shows the impact of these devices on urban areas and people can see what it does first hand. There’s a lot to be learned with dealing with explosives and it’s important for first responders to have this knowledge to stay safe. During the course we touch on nuclear, biological and chemical bombs.”
King and Wood were asked to become instructors because the consulting firm for which they work, Science Applications International Corporation, helps find instructors for the course. Since then, they have taught people who responded to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
On a local level, Wood said a first responder from the county who took the course responded to the pipe bomb explosion at the home of Robert Fetrow in the Occoquan area in 2000. Fetrow was killed when a pipe bomb he was working on exploded causing subsequent explosions and a fire that destroyed his house.
“Bombing attacks are the most common attacks of terrorists and that’s where our concern should be,” Wood said.
King added that the training is out there for first response workers, and it should be sought. According to King, the training is free and anyone with questions should ask the heads of their department. “It’s important for first responders to get trained at the awareness level,” he said.
Staff writer Christian Czerwinski can be reached at 703-878-8074.