WASHINGTON – The only shield between anthrax and the Marines testing Capitol Hill for the deadly bacterium looks like little more than a white trash bag, sealed with silver tape around bright yellow boots, and topped off with an alien-looking forced-air mask.
But as he pulled on one of the full-protection suits for a demonstration Tuesday, one of the Marines said he decided to specialize in detection of biological and chemical agents “because somebody’s got to do it.”
That workmanlike attitude from the Maryland-based Chemical Biological Incident Response Force was lauded Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where members of the team have spent the past two weeks sweeping congressional buildings for anthrax.
“They’ve gotten up, gritted their teeth and said, `We’re going on, we’re going to prevail,'” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, about the group.
Founded in 1996 in North Carolina, CBIRF has operated out of Naval Sea Systems Command, Indian Head in Charles County for over a year. The unit is capable of deploying a response team within 60 minutes of an incident involving a chemical or biological threat, followed by another, larger force within two to three hours.
Unlike other biological and chemical response teams in the nation, CBIRF contains its own medical personnel unit, which would remove and decontaminate any victims in an emergency situation.
Unit members work with local law, fire and hazardous materials teams to identify and detect threats, search for and rescue potential victims and apply the first steps of medical assistance.
On the Hill on Tuesday, a lieutenant colonel, a medical officer and a three-man team from the unit explained their equipment and some of the basic tactics they use. They did not give their names, on Defense Department orders.
A team leader helped two of the men into their full protection suits before they opened packets of sterilized cloth. They used the cloth to swipe down a portion of the sidewalk, just as they had on and around the desks of numerous Capitol offices. Lab tests performed on the cloths will later determine the presence of any biological agent.
Hoyer and the CBIRF members declined to say how many buildings have been tested on Capitol Hill or if they have been looking for other biological agents. They also would not say if CBIRF is involved in testing post offices.
Office buildings in the Capitol complex remain closed a week after they were projected to reopen.
Two House office buildings have reopened, but the Ford House Office Building and the Longworth House Office Building — where Hoyer has an office — remain closed, with no reopening date set.
The Hart Senate Office Building, where anthrax was first detected on the Hill, also remains closed and is not expected to open until mid-November, according to U.S. Capitol Police. Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, both Baltimore Democrats, have offices in Hart.
But the Capitol itself is open.
“The people’s house, to the extent it ever is, is in order,” Hoyer said about the Capitol.
He commended CBIRF for taking on a task that most of America would run away from, adding that the Marines as a whole have a reputation for excelling at the riskiest jobs.
“They signed on to take great risk, period,” Hoyer said about their decision to join the Marines.