Oct. 2, 2006 —
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In the homeland defense community, these are people you'd be happy to have as neighbors.
Col. Michael Campbell and Sgt. Maj. Thomas Murphy have spent the last year and a half learning everything there is to know about the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (aka CBIRF, pronounced SEE-burf). Campbell and Murphy, both Marines, lead an elite team of 450 Marines and Sailors whose mission is to respond to incidents – anywhere in the world – involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high yield explosive materials. CBIRF assists local, state and federal agencies by detecting and identifying agents, searching for and rescuing casualties, decontaminating people, providing emergency medical care and stabilizing contaminated people.
"Everybody admits, we're the gold standard," said Campbell, the team's commander. He and Murphy, the team's senior enlisted advisor, assumed their responsibilities at CBIRF 18 months ago, within a week of each other. "About every doggone day, we've been learning something new," Campbell said. "There's a lot to learn. It's complicated work, and it's dangerous work."
It's also work with which U.S. Northern Command – the military organization responsible for providing command and control of Department of Defense homeland defense efforts and coordinating defense support of civil authorities – is involved. In fact, USNORTHCOM's senior enlisted advisor, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. D. Scott Frye, has visited the CBIRF installation in Maryland two or three times, Campbell said. And USNORTHCOM's commander, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, visited soon after assuming his current position to learn more about CBIRF's capabilities.
"I think we had a very productive visit and, before he left, he encouraged us to come out and visit him," Campbell said. "It's taken us over a year to take him up on the offer."
Their visit may have been long in coming, but it was relatively short in length.
Campbell and Murphy were able to spend just a day at USNORTHCOM headquarters attending briefings and touring facilities. But CBIRF is no stranger to the command, or its mission, they said.
"We have a healthy working relationship," Campbell said, with Joint Task Force Civil Support, the USNORTHCOM subordinate command that plans and integrates Department of Defense support to designated lead agencies for domestic consequence management operations involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive materials. CBIRF has participated in exercises with JTF-CS, Campbell added, as well as worked with the National Guard's Weapons of Mass Destruction - Civil Support Teams in the District of Columbia, Virginia and West Virginia.
"We are a national asset," Murphy said, "so it's very possible that NORTHCOM ... would have some type of operational control" over CBIRF, if the team were to respond to a domestic incident.
CBIRF's Marines and Sailors are divided among three companies: two Initial Response Force companies and a headquarters and service company. At any given time, one IRF company, plus a supporting "slice" from the headquarters company, is on a short recall status; everyone else is on a longer recall status. That means personnel are limited as to how far they may go from the CBIRF installation in Indian Head, Md.
CBIRF was originally located at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; it moved a few years ago to Maryland to be closer to the U.S. capital, Murphy said. In fact, the team's close proximity (about 26 miles) to the District of Columbia is so important, Campbell is required to inform a sizeable list of people whenever and why even one of the IRFs will be away from Indian Head.
Not long after the 9-11 terrorist attacks (before USNORTHCOM became operational in 2002), CBIRF responded to two incidents on Capitol Hill: one involving ricin, the other, anthrax.
"That was more of a clean-up mission than saving lives, at that point," Murphy said.¬
Like USNORTHCOM, CBIRF will always carry out its missions in support of a lead agency, Campbell said.
"We'll never be in charge," he said. "That's a hard thing for Marines. I tell these grunts who just came from the school of infantry, 'Just park your rifle. And oh, by the way, you'll never be in charge. You're not going to kill anybody. Heck, you're not going to hurt anybody. Your job is to save a life.'"
Most of CBIRF's personnel are infantry "grunts." But members of the team have a total of 43 different career specialties, including weather, counterintelligence, explosive ordnance disposal and public affairs. The CBIRF is "quite diverse for a small amount of Marines and Sailors," Murphy said.
Regardless of their career fields, all Marines and Sailors who join the CBIRF go through the two-week CBIRF basic training course. That includes the colonel, the sergeant major, and even the team's chaplain. The basic course includes training in operating in confined spaces, search techniques and the wearing of personal protective equipment. Completion of the basic course is followed by about a year of on-the-job training, Campbell said, which culminates in a week of training with live agents.
In the course of their preparations to respond to emergencies, CBIRF members work with many other organizations and specialists, including Coast Guard personnel, police officers and firefighters.
"They really gain a healthy respect for what their civilian counterparts do," Campbell said.
The CBIRF training facility is even named after the former commander of the New York City Fire Department's Special Operations Command. Deputy Chief Raymond Downey, a former Marine, was helping CBIRF put together its rescue training program before he was killed during rescue operations at the World Trade Center on 9-11.
Both Campbell and Murphy said it's a matter of "not if, but when" the CBIRF team will be needed next. To be better prepared for that day, one-third of CBIRF's Marines are qualified as emergency medical technicians.
"If you look at units in the military, we have the biggest percentage of medically qualified people," Campbell said. "We are a lifesaving organization. All we do is lifesaving. We don't have a wartime mission. We train for crisis response."
"And we're on call," Murphy added, "365 days a year."