Establishing a Common Operating Picture for Chemical Weapons Emergencies

In the 1970s, devastating wildfires in California revealed several major faults in the command structure and gave rise to the Incident Command System (ICS), which later evolved into the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Today, the National Response Framework (NRF) builds upon those systems and defines a common operating picture (COP) as “a continuously updated overview of an incident compiled throughout an incident’s life cycle from data shared between integrated systems for communication, information management, and intelligence and information sharing.” A COP ensures real-time situational awareness across all levels of incident management and jurisdictions. In this article, we describe a tool and a process that help to ensure situational awareness and to ensure a COP to safeguard communities from the hazards associated with the storage and destruction of deadly chemical warfare agents.

From WWI to the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program
From the First World War through the 1960s, the U.S. Army produced various chemical weapons and the munitions—rockets, artillery shells, and similar ordnance—to deploy these chemicals on the battlefield. The U.S. never used these weapons in war, but for decades they sat in storage serving as a deterrent, slowly deteriorating.

In 1986, Congress acknowledged that American defense policy no longer accommodated the use of chemical weapons and directed the Army to destroy the chemical weapons stored at its eight Continental U.S. stockpile sites (Public Law 99-145, Title 14, Part B, Section 1412). To ensure safety while addressing that obligation, the Army established the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) in 1988 to ensure the safety of its workers and the communities surrounding these chemical stockpile sites.

CSEPP is a partnership between the Army, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the state and local emergency management agencies near each stockpile. While two stockpile sites still remain, one in Colorado and one in Kentucky, six other sites have successfully destroyed their stockpiles safely and without incident.

Standardized Concept of Operations (CONOPS)
In order to protect personnel on-post as well as the general community off-post, standardized concept of operations (CONOPs) have been developed for all storage and disposal operations at the Army installations housing chemical stockpiles. A typical CONOPs for normal operations and one for emergency response operations at these installations are summarized below.

Normal Operations

  1. Army installation develops Daily Work Plan based on planned chemical stockpile operations for the day
  2. Army installation selects an associated Maximum Credible Event (MCE), a list of higher-probability accident scenarios based on the planned stockpile operation
  3. Army installation conducts a hazard analysis based on MCE and current and forecasted meteorological data
  4. Army installation revises work plan if hazard exceeds operational safety rules
  5. Army develops Protective Action Recommendation (PAR) based on MCE and meteorological data
  6. Army sends Daily Work Plan with associated hazard and PAR to off-post warning points
  7. Army updates Daily Work Plan if changes in chemical stockpile operations produce a new hazard or if there is a significant change in meteorological conditions

Emergency Response Operations

  1. If there is a chemical weapons accident, the Army installation switches from Normal operations to Response mode and responds to the initiating event
  2. Army installation operations center updates hazard plot using most current meteorological data
  3. Army installation broadcasts updated PAR to off-post warning points within 5 minutes
  4. Off-post warning points review PAR and formalize a Protective Action Decision (PAD)
  5. Off-post warning points activate public alert systems and broadcast PAD within 8 minutes of receipt of PAR
  6. Off-post warning points communicate PAD back to Army installation
  7. Army installation monitors incident and updates hazard assessment and PAR based on accident information, response actions taken, and constantly updated meteorological data
  8. Updated PARs are broadcast to off-post warning points as required
  9. Common Operating Picture is maintained throughout response phase

Development of WebPuff™
The CONOPs described above has been updated and improved over the years. Early in the CSEPP Program, nearly all these activities were done by hand, and multiple systems were used for communications including telephones and faxes. That often meant taking plume dispersion model results and searching through look-up tables to determine the geographical areas that might be impacted on physical maps using overlays.

This process typically took too long and relied on several disparate systems. In order to improve the entire operations process, an automated information system called WebPuff™ was developed. In essence, WebPuff is a tool that does all the above in one place, thereby supporting situational awareness and providing a COP.

What is WebPuff™?
WebPuff is a web-based system built around an atmospheric dispersion model accredited by the Department of Defense (DoD) that enables automated sharing of essential hazard information between the Army and off-post emergency operations centers (EOCs). Every step in the CONOPs described above is accomplished using WebPuff. During normal operations, the Army installation uses WebPuff to develop their Daily Work Plans, model the hazard risks associated with the planned activities, develop PARs, and share them with off-post EOCs. Off-post EOCs at the local and state levels also use WebPuff to review the Daily Work Plans and to communicate with the Army installation. WebPuff is also used to conduct exercises with on-post and off-post EOCs as part of their annual exercise schedule. On-post and off-post hazard analysts routinely train together on the use of the software, minimizing the risk of errors and false alarms.

Use in Emergency Response
In the case of an incident involving a chemical release on-post, WebPuff would be used during emergency response operations as a key response coordination tool (Figure 1). WebPuff uses both on-post and off-post CSEPP weather stations to automatically gather meteorological data and plot chemical hazard plumes within 2 minutes of the incident. Based on these factors, WebPuff provides PARs to analysts in the Army EOC so they can decide on the best PAR and broadcast those recommendations, through WebPuff, to the off-post EOCs within 5 minutes of the incident.

These extremely rapid response times are required by program policy due to the proximity of civilian populations to these Army installations, and the exceptional toxicity of the chemical agents. Off-post decision makers review the PAR on WebPuff, formalize their PAD, and convey their PAD back to the on-post EOC via WebPuff. During the course of the event, the state EOC as well as the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity (CMA) EOC, which oversees Army chemical weapons operations, are updated on the situation and response activities through WebPuff. The use of WebPuff across the different levels of incident management and jurisdictions helps to provide the critical COP for the response.

Figure 1: The flow of information that WebPuff transmits during both normal and emergency response operations to support situational awareness and to provide a COP for incident managers.

Fortunately, there has never been a significant chemical warfare agent release during storage operations or the chemical weapons destruction process. While WebPuff has not been used for an actual chemical weapons emergency response, it is used daily by both on-post and off-post EOCs. Quarterly drills and annual full-scale exercises are conducted and have successfully demonstrated that WebPuff results can be provided within 2 minutes, PARs broadcasted to off-post EOCs within 5 minutes of an exercise chemical event, and the public notified of PADs within 8 minutes of off-post notification.

Factors in WebPuff’s Success
The success of WebPuff as a community information network is attributed to these key factors:

      • WebPuff was built around existing response protocols and CONOPs—it was not expected that response actions would be adjusted to accommodate the software
      • Training of WebPuff is given to state, local, and installation users together, so everyone sees how other entities will use WebPuff
      • WebPuff is used on a daily basis and exercised regularly

Ultimately, WebPuff is a single, powerful tool that allows chemical weapons storage and destruction operations to be carried out on a daily basis while keeping both on-post personnel and nearby civilian populations safe. WebPuff is a single common tool that is used during normal operations as well as during emergency operations to predict hazard exposures, provide protective action recommendations, provide communications among on-post and off-post EOCs, and provide situational awareness and a COP for all entities involved in the chemical destruction process.


This article was originally published in the IAEM Bulletin, Vol. 35, No. 3 March 2018.

Authors: Sid Baccam, Ph.D., Senior Scientist and Manager of Information Solutions & Emerging Technologies, and Jack Long, Director of Critical Infrastructure Protection