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profiles by mike field
The last place Jackie Agnew expected to find herself at the end of the semester was in a room filled with tear gas, checking to see if her gas mask was a good fit.
“They take you into this gas chamber, which is nothing more than a concrete blockhouse with a door, and they have you move around, talk, jump up and down to make sure there aren’t any leaks,” she says of the experience. “You know right away if your mask fits.” Luckily, hers did.
A professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences whose expertise lies in workplace and environmental exposures to chemical, biological, and radiological agents, Agnew directs the Johns Hopkins Education and Research Center for Occupational Health and Safety (ERC). She is also a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, which is how, last April, she found herself conducting gas mask drills in Fort Campbell, Ky. Her unit—the 309th Medical Group based in Rockville, Md.—was called up last March as part of the general mobilization for the Iraq invasion. Although Agnew, RN, MPH ’78, PhD ’85, and the members of her unit participated in the same chemical warfare drills as the soldiers departing for the Middle East, their work was strictly stateside, related to the command and control of the Army’s frontline medical units. “We’re like air traffic controllers for medical assets,” is how Agnew describes it. “We’re the ones charged with figuring out where hospitals will set up, and how you arrange to get casualties to them.”At Fort Campbell they were primarily engaged in training for a combined military-civilian response in the event of a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. In particular, they developed plans to respond in the event of a domestic chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive (CBRNE) event. These kinds of attacks, which have only been seriously contemplated since the events of 9/11, call for a larger, more comprehensive response than disasters typically described in civil defense manuals. “CBRNE events are different in that they are much further-reaching than a train derailment or a tornado or some other typical emergency situation,” says Agnew. “Because of this, they necessitate interaction among agencies and organizations that may not have a lot of experience interacting—especially among civilian and military agencies.”
When Agnew’s unit got to Fort Campbell, they immediately began training in suitable responses to CBRNE events. “This entire concept is so new that no one knew precisely what should be done,” she says. “There was no manual.”
As it turns out, the 309th had a tremendous asset in Agnew. Just a few months earlier, the ERC had organized a two-day conference in Baltimore aimed at determining a training model for the professionals who would be called upon to respond to a CBRNE event. “We had over 200 participants from across the country,” she says.
Deactivated and returned to its Rockville base in July, Agnew’s unit will continue to work on increasing CBRNE event readiness. “One of the most satisfying aspects of what we did was that it showed the benefit of using reservists,” she says. “We understand the civilian system, and could provide an interface between the civilian and military sides. In the section I led, I had representatives from the private sector, the Coast Guard, the Navy, the FBI, and the USDA, and the professionals included researchers, industrial hygienists, and even a chaplain. They brought an understanding of different systems that would be essential in the event of an emergency.”