Staff Q&A: Tom Boyle

Senior Biosafety Officer Tom Boyle usually gets involved with infectious waste issues, performs laboratory audits and reviews recombinant DNA registration documentation to ensure the safety of Penn employees. Boyle, who has also worked as a volunteer firefighter in Willingboro, N.J., for 21 years, can now officially call himself a Weapon of Mass Destruction Hazmat (hazardous materials) Technician after completing a four-day training session at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala.

Boyle braved the southern summer sun to participate in the session, run through the Department of Homeland Security and the Center for Domestic Preparedness. This training has given him more confidence in both of his jobs since Boyle now has experience working with two of the most deadly nerve agents: VX and sarin.

Q. What was the training like?
We flew in and we were bused to Fort McClellan. The next morning, we were bused to the classrooms. We did classroom sessions for the first two days. The second day is basically working in environments, a simulated disaster with casualties… They had decontamination, where you would actually cut the individual out—it was a mannequin—cut the mannequin out of their clothes, ensuring that the clothes weren’t disturbed because it would be used as evidence because it would be a criminal scene.

There was another station where you actually used the various instruments that were provided to find out exactly if there was an agent present. They used a simulant that would give you a positive reading. Basically what this was leading up to was the final day when you actually went to the grounds on the base where you would actually use live agents, which were VX and sarin.

Q. Prior to this training, had you trained to handle these nerve agents before?
No, this is the first training that was provided. I have 40 hours hazmat technician training and … go through annual updates in order to keep [my] certification. I’ve been doing that for 13 years. Prior to that I’ve had some training in the fire department that I’ve been running with for about 21 years.

Q. Despite your training, were you nervous working with live agents?
You kind of get a butterfly in your stomach. But, on the other hand, you want to see how far you can push your body, see what you can actually do. When you first enter into the room, everybody was basically not talking to each other. You have to work as a team once you get in there, so the instructors that were with you … talked you through things.

Q. When was the training?
August [2003]. August in Alabama. (laughs)

Q. In that suit, I imagine it was a little warm.
(laughs) I lost a couple of pounds.

Q. What is the suit like?
It’s a thick plastic so you basically have your clothes on. Or you can have something like surgical scrubs or like a breathable cotton jumpsuit, and then you have your air pack on and your face piece. You have gloves on and you get into the heavy plastic suit that has everything sealed. Then you put that on and we went from a nice air-conditioned building out into the Alabama sun and walked a distance to the building where we were actually doing the simulations.

Q. It sounds like the trainings you’ve gone through in both of your jobs work in conjunction.
They basically go hand in hand. The hazmat training that I’ve done through the fire department was done through the fire academy when I first joined and we get annual refreshers and right-to-know, blood borne pathogens, and here at Penn, we go through the annual update for hazmat technicians.

Q. How have both of your jobs changed since the general public has been made more aware of bioterrorism?
More people are more concerned about things they never paid attention to before. When the anthrax letters were going through the mail, the number of calls that our office received because of white powder—that was a large response, just on each occurrence. We put together a protocol so that our response would be consistent.

The fire department responded to numerous calls for health care providers, for primary care physicians to hospitals, but because we don’t have a hazmat team within the fire department, the county hazmat team would come out. But it was nice that I would have been able to—I actually did, over the phone on a couple occasions—ask the questions and get things in place or get the safety folks at the hospital to start to think about several things before hazmat got there.

Q. Here’s hoping you never have to use this training.
I don’t think I’ll have to use the training here. We don’t have the detectors, we don’t have the equipment, and if there was a response that dealt with weapons of mass destruction, it would be a federal response. But if I was able to help out, I’m sure anybody that would be in my shoes or anybody in this office would be more than willing to help out. …

I’ve been doing emergency response for quite some time now and it’s just something new and interesting and very very different.

Tom Boyle