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Preparing for a new war

By Gordon Robison

Gordon Robison, CNN senior producer
Gordon Robison, CNN senior producer

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CNN's Barbara Starr reports on battlefield training provided by the Pentagon where around 60 journalists attended (November 22)
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Jacket and pants. Inner and outer gloves. Overboots. Water bottle. Gas mask. The tools of a 21st century journalist, ready for work. With seven other similarly attired people, I entered the gas chamber.

It has become routine for CNN and some other news organizations to provide their reporters, producers and technical crews with war zone training. Courses can last as long as a week, combining first aid classes with basic primers on weapons, battlefields, survival skills and negotiating.

The possibility of a new war in Iraq has added a new element to this mix: surviving chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Most war zone courses touch only generally on weapons of mass destruction. But reporters headed into the field are now being offered supplementary courses focusing specifically on what the military call CBR (chemical, biological, radiological) issues.

A recent class outside the English city of Salisbury was a case in point. I was one of five CNN journalists attending the two-day course. A private company conducts the training, and also provides consulting services to CNN and other media organizations, from leased office space on a British military base.

Lectures on the effects of different nerve and biological agents alternated with scary films featuring nuclear explosions, the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway, and Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988.

We learned to recognize the signs of nerve agent poisoning, and the early symptoms of anthrax, smallpox and a number of other potential biological warfare agents.

On the first day we were all fitted for biohazard suits. We practiced putting on and properly sealing the gas masks, and then moved on to taking them out of backpacks and donning them with our eyes closed while holding our breath. In theory, you're supposed to be able to do this in nine seconds. That, we discovered, requires a lot of practice.

By day two we were being asked to watch old news coverage of chemical spills and nuclear accidents, critiquing the performance of the journalists who filed the original reports. The trick was to find ways to get the same story, but stay safer.

Everything built toward the afternoon of our final day. Andy, our instructor, marched his seven pupils across the base toward a group of low brick buildings. There we donned our suits, and were sealed into a gas chamber.

As the room filled with tear gas (according to Andy, only the U.S. military does this sort of practice run with anything stronger) we practiced changing the filter canister without taking off the gas mask and drinking from a special canteen without taking off the mask or suit -- a crucial skill since our biohazard suits were extremely hot, even on a rainy November day.

The final tally? I managed to change the canister easily enough, but never did get any water out of the canteen. The small straw inside the gas mask kept getting stuck on my cheek.

Not to worry, Andy said, the gas masks CNN issues to its staff are different models from the ones we train on. Their straws are in a slightly different position.

I'll have to take that on faith.

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