Tucked away on the site of the former Fort McClellan, the center from the outside looks like a standard government office building. The wide, white hallways of its interior would not be out of a place in a high school.
That's perhaps fitting as participants here are students, learning how to aid the victims of a potential terrorist attack without becoming casualties themselves.
On one morning in September, 143 first responders from around the country walked the hallways lined with pictures of emergency personnel in action and a sign indicating the present terrorist threat level. They listened to classroom lectures and practiced scenarios involving chemical, biological or radiological materials. Before they went home, many would actually come into close contact with live sarin and VX nerve agents.
"I think that's going to be pretty exciting," said Kelvin Bolden, a security officer at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, Miss. "Are we prepared for it? We'll know in the morning."
Bombings at the World Trade Center in 1993 and Oklahoma City in 1995 made it clear a decade ago that terrorism would occur within the United States, while the 1995 sarin attack in the Tokyo subway showed that terrorists could obtain poisonous agents.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Walt Phillips believed nonmilitary first responders would benefit from a facility akin to the U.S. Army's Chemical School, which teaches soldiers to overcome attacks using nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological weapons. Once Fort McClellan was ordered closed in 1995, Phillips successfully pressed for Chemical School facilities to be used to train civilians.
The Center for Domestic Preparedness was established in November 1997 as an agency within the Justice Department. Its job was to "prepare relevant federal, state and local officials, including law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and other key agencies such as public works and emergency management agencies to prepare for and respond to chemical, biological or other terrorist acts."
A group of police officers, primarily from nearby Birmingham, attended the center's initial course on June 1, 1998. About 2,500 first responders were trained annually for the next few years at the facility, which also offered a limited mobile training program.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax mailings that quickly followed heightened the sense that U.S. emergency personnel needed more training against terrorist incidents, particularly those involving unconventional weapons.
The center quadrupled its on-site training to 10,000 each year, strengthened its mobile training program and intensified its instruction on terrorism prevention. It was transferred to the fledgling Homeland Security Department in March 2003.
In fiscal 2004 the center had upwards of 550 employees, most of them government contractors, and a $55 million budget. It operates six core on-site courses and has two large trailers for mobile training visits to communities, all offered free of charge to state and local first responders.
"My hope is that they'll take away a general understanding of a WMD terrorism incident," said CDP Director Marion Cain. "How to respond to it and [that] their equipment and the techniques they've learned will work, and will protect them from these terrible weapons."
Danger - in the practice sense, at least - is literally around every corner in the center's training rooms. It's also hidden amongst the leaves of a potted plant.
Even the standard practice of entering a room could be deadly, as Henderson, Ky., search and rescue coordinator Fredrick Behnke III found out.
One room offered a bounty of unpleasant surprises for teams searching the office of a fictional victim of a WMD attack. There was flammable liquid in a container above the ceiling, blood in a HAZMAT container and a suspect device underneath the desk.
"We walked in, the first person flipped the light on, could have started an explosion," Behnke said. "You learn, 'Oh yeah, don't do that.'"
Behnke was attending the four-day WMD Technical Emergency Response Training (TERT) course, the basic program for first responders and the one with perhaps the widest range of participants.
Alongside Behnke were Bolden, the Mississippi hospital guard, and Danica Rast, a public safety dispatcher from Reno, Nev. The three and their fellow trainees learned about unconventional weaponry, terrorism threats and WMD attack scene management in classrooms, then put that education to work in 20 hours of hands-on training.
Participants learned to suit up in protective gear, which would be crucial later in training when they confronted live chemical agents, and to assemble a decontamination triage line for "victims" of a WMD attack. They also were taught to recognize weaponry and chemical agents.
"They wanted to put on the suits, drag mannequins, pick up pieces of equipment and learn how to use it," said Terry Quarles, acting assistant director of the Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, Radiological (COBRA) Training Facility.
Beyond the nuts and bolts, the students said they learned to work together with people from different disciplines and regions, and saw how this education could apply to most any public safety position.
Rast's job as a dispatcher keeps her in her workspace at all times. However, she said now she knows that a call regarding multiple people becoming sick at one location could mean an attack using a biological or chemical weapon. She'll know to ask callers about suspicious smells or materials in the area. Information gleaned from those questions could help prepare the emergency medical personnel and firefighters that Rast sends to the call, and keep them safe if it is an attack.
"I think the more knowledge you have in anything you do is a good thing," Rast said.
Rast and her colleagues spent four days at the center. The core training programs run from two to five days and target personnel with varying areas of expertise.
Trainees in the WMD Incident Command Training Course, who come in with a firm knowledge of incident commands, spend three days learning to organize the response to a WMD event. They finish training with an eight-hour exercise working on a tabletop model of a city in which 150 people have been infected with some sort of agent.
Participants in the three-day WMD Hazardous Material Technician Training Course have nine rooms to hone their HAZMAT skills in a WMD incident. Much of the space is filled with smoke, as music and alarms blare, all with the purpose of offsetting the training and experience they entered the center with.
In a mock mailroom that has been infected with a suspicious powder, the trainees must extricate mannequins that are "victims" of the attack. There are no survivors in a room made to look like a judge's chambers, but the students must draw samples of a fake chemical agent for testing.
"Everyone in this site is dead. I had to kill them all" so the students would not try to save the victims rather than accomplishing their assigned task, said Pat Garrett, HAZMAT assistant course manager, said of his students.
Students in three courses don't go home until they've gotten up close and personal with sarin and VX. Or as personal as one can get while completely covered in protective gear.
The COBRA facility sits at a distance from the main training building, behind two guard stations and a fence topped with barbed wire.
The security keeps uninvited people out of the center, while constant computerized air monitoring and an industrial ventilation and filter system prevents any chemical agent from escaping.
Participants even wear a loaned set of clothes at the facility, to ensure nothing questionable sticks to their street wear when they leave.
A HAZMAT class was suiting up for their tour on a Wednesday. If the three students of the TERT course seemed a bit worried, members of this group were quietly eager.
"This is going to be challenging," said Rufus Washington, a state trooper and training coordinator for the Alabama Department of Public Safety. "It's going to take some teamwork and some organization."
The scenario calls teams to an incident in which conventional explosives are set off in a gymnasium during a basketball game. Meanwhile, a chemical agent had been placed into the air system from a row of rooms in the basement area. Broken into three teams, the responders will have to rescue survivors of the explosion, preserve a crime scene in one room with several deceased mannequins and sample and monitor live chemical agents in another space.
While other groups are shown exactly where the VX and sarin are placed, the highly trained HAZMAT personnel will have to find it on their own.
In the wake of real incidents involving anthrax and ricin, hands-on training of this sort could be crucial on the job, students and trainers said.
"They leave here very confident that they can do this," said Bruce Mitchell, COBRA team leader. "This is real. It's something they need to know about."
There are 11 million first responders and other personnel in the United States who need training in terrorism response, according to the center, meaning its work will never be finished.
Not, however, for lack of trying.
Roughly 60 percent of the CDP participants are certified trainers in their home jurisdictions. They go home with books, compact discs and heads full of new knowledge to pass on.
Through on-site, mobile and extension programs, the center at last count had trained 199,579 responders since its inception.
Meanwhile, new initiatives are being planned. The Homeland Security Office of Domestic Preparedness is developing training procedures for personnel in private industries that could be at risk for an attack, such as chemical plants.
The center is also collaborating with the Agriculture Department on pilot courses training agricultural first responders to detect and manage biological attacks on U.S. crops and livestock. If the pilot courses are successful, the program could be added to the core CDP program.
The center's employees and their students can only hope all this work goes to waste.
"Of course, we hope we never have to use it," Washington said. "But if we do, the education and knowledge will be very important."