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Lance Cpl. Logan Carr, mobile laboratory operator, identification and detection platoon, Headquarters and Service Company, Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, II Marine Expeditionary Force, analyzes a sample he tested in the glove box here March 26. After IDP Marines skillfully extract samples from the contaminated area, samples are then analyzed in the mobile lab.

Photo by Sgt. Leslie Palmer

CBIRF’s chem lab on wheels

21 Apr 2009 | Sgt. Leslie Palmer

Sometimes, the enemy isn’t recognized.

Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, II Marine Expeditionary Force Marines and sailors have a life-saving mission as emergency responders. This requires a lot of different disciplines, one of which is organic to CBIRF.

“The mobile laboratory is an analytical suite on a mobile platform,” said Dr. Erick Swartz, who is the resident scientist here. “It is designed to analyze gases but more specifically, liquids and solids that give off a gas.”

With such a state-of-the-art piece of equipment, training on how to use it is vital to its implementation. Being able to recognize the contaminants in a contaminated area, identification and detection platoon (IDP) Marines are imperative to CBIRF’s mission. Only Marines with IDP can operate the mobile laboratory and go through extensive training on its usage.

“First, Marines must master sampling techniques in a contaminated area,” Swartz explained. “Then, they must pass technical classes, including organic chemistry, in which they have to get at least an A- to pass. This class really teaches them to speak like a scientist. Once Marines complete the class, they are able to recognize different materials from alcohols to organic phosphates,” he added.

IDP Marines effectively use the mobile laboratory to establish how CBIRF Marines and sailors conduct their rescue operations.

“Primarily, IDP Marines identify the hazard to establish clean and dirty routes through the contaminated area. They also identify the hazard to determine the level of [personal protective equipment] and for decontamination and medical purposes,” Swartz explained.

The mobile laboratory has many different capabilities, including a force preservation factor. CBIRF Marines and sailors respond to any Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, or High-yield Explosive incident using different levels of protection, one being level B, which includes a gas mask and a semi-encapsulated chemical protective over garment.

“Once we find out what the contaminant is, we can determine what level of PPE the Marines have to be in, if any. I think it’s really important just for that factor, because being [in the contaminated area] in level B all of the time can tire any Marine out,” said Lance Cpl. Logan Carr, junior mobile laboratory operator, IDP, Headquarters and Service Company, CBIRF.

One of the many stepping stones in training with the mobile lab is putting it to use at the Defense Research and Development Center, where IDP Marines conduct live agent training under the guidance of world-renowned scientists.

“Marines must also know downrange analysis using portable analytical instrumentation.  This also serves a perquisite for a mobile lab operator.” Swartz added.

In order to get the sample that is in the contaminated area, IDP Marines travel into the contaminated area to skillfully collect the samples.

“Then, [IDP Marines] bring the samples back to us here at the mobile lab,” Carr explained, “and we’ll process the sample from there.”

Undergoing several changes, the mobile laboratory has gone from a simple process to an innovative and state-of-the-art operation, Swartz explained.

“The original mobile lab pretty much consisted of a [Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer] in a van,” Swartz explained.  “In the old mobile lab, we had a portable separate fume hood on a table,” Swartz added.

The new mobile lab benefited from several lessons learned.

“We designed it with two things in mind; safety and redundant operations, so if we lose something, we’ll have a back-up,” Swartz explained. “For example, if our hydrogen generator fails, we have a small helium tank that lasts for several days of operation, until the hydrogen generator can be fixed or replaced. For safety, one thing we have is the glove box, which is safer than a fume hood.” 

Leading the way in progressive research, CBIRF is exploring a new way to use the mobile lab with sorbent sampling tubes, which collect most gases and vapors from the air. While the tubes are the size and shape of a pen, they fit onto a Marine’s chemical protective over garment.

“The sorbent tubes let us analyze what contaminant the Marines are exposed to,” Swartz explained. “So, the mobile lab allows us to monitor Marines, when they come through the decontamination line.”

Having the right tool for the right job is pivotal in analyzing contaminants, so CBIRF Marines can properly execute their life-saving mission, making them more capable of saving lives.


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