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Biological team protects Balad Airmen from bioterrorism

by Master Sgt. Bryan Ripple
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

5/24/2007 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Two lab technician Airmen team up as a pair of modern "CSI-type" technicians, using test tubes, centrifuges, and other sophisticated testing equipment to keep Balad Air Base Airmen safe. 

Maj. Thomas Shaak and Staff Sgt. Raul Gutierrez are assigned to the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group's biological augmentation team here and maintain the capability to provide early detection of biological agents in case of attack. 

"If we can figure out what was involved in an attack within three hours and get the proper response actions going within 12 hours, we can prevent mission degradation and keep bioterrorism from touching our mission," said Major Shaak, the biological augmentation team flight commander.

Determining what may or may not be involved in a potential biological attack involves science down to the DNA level. Any sample of material, including blood, water, food, or even dirt, can be tested.

"The job is interesting," said Sergeant Gutierrez, the NCO in charge of the lab. "There is always something new to learn, and it allows us to help people out."  

Both Major Shaak and Sergeant Gutierrez are deployed from the Air Force Institute of Operational Health, part of the 311th Human Systems Wing at Brooks-City Base in San Antonio.

"Our job is to be a biological force protection tool by detecting vulnerabilities as quick as possible," said Major Shaak, who is on his second overseas deployment. "We coordinate with other base response agencies and ensure the biological testing is accomplished in the safest and most sensitive, error-free manner."

When the team arrived at Balad AB for the air expeditionary force 5 and 6 rotation, the lab was using a system called the Ruggedized Advanced Pathogen Identification Device, or RAPIDS, capable of identifying up to five biological agents.

"With RAPIDS, we had more work to do involving chemistry, and confidence in results was lower," Major Shaak said. "Now we're using a system called the Joint Biological Agent Identification and Detection System." 

The new JBAIDS system increased testing capacity to more than 10 agents, while cutting testing time down from a couple days to three to four hours, Major Shaak said.

In addition to being prepared to test for bioterrorism, Major Shaak and Sergeant Gutierrez are also preparing to deploy the first monitoring component of the Global Integrated Monitoring System, called GIMS, in Southwest Asia.

"This system puts a global viewer on the commander's desktop providing them situational awareness for the real world and assisting them in documenting and protecting their personnel from chemical exposures," Major Shaak said.

"It's great to be working with new technology. It's self-powered, easy to deploy, and it allows us to integrate data from many sources while providing us round-the-clock surveillance directly from the field," Sergeant Gutierrez said.

Ultimately, the goal of the GIMS is to synchronize with existing and future joint health surveillance and medical information systems from the earliest echelons through the chronic care provided by the Veterans Administration.

The biological augmentation team, through the GIMS and JBAIDS platforms, is works to ensure Balad AB's members stay safe and protected from biological and chemical exposures in the short and long term.

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