Commentary

Addressing Threats – From Concept to Field

by Catherine L. Feinman

Read: “CBRNE Threats," September 2016 edition of DomPrep Journal

To address various national threats and the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) role in military and civilian defense technology, DomPrep hosted a roundtable discussion on 21 July 2016 at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC). That discussion, which was moderated by ECBC’s BioScience Division Chief Peter Emanuel, brought together professionals from various disciplines and is summarized in this article.

Catherine FeinmanLocated in Aberdeen, Maryland, the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command Headquarters houses 76 tenants, with the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) being the third largest tenant, employing approximately 1,500 people. As a civilian-run research, development, and engineering center, ECBC is a critical resource for research and development of technologies related to chemical and biological weapon defense and strives to solve problems and reduce lead times of equipment from concept to the field.

Technology Development

Responses to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) incidents require equipping response personnel with the most effective equipment and technology available to protect their lives and safety. However, developing that equipment can be a challenge. “It’s not the science that kills us, it’s usually the contracts, policies, rules, or other things that you don’t expect that makes the process that much harder,” said Emanuel. Advance technology development (ATD) is one way to cut the delivery from survey to soldier/responder by one-third. From the government perspective, specific problems need material solutions, so there needs to be an analysis of alternatives (what already exists and is working).

ECBC is a chemical-biological solutions center and has served as a test bed for market surveys, laboratory testing, field testing, technology development, and so on. To better serve first responders, warfighters, combat health support systems, homeland security personnel, as well as military and civilian research laboratories, ECBC created a book entitled “Global CBRN Detector Market Survey” to enable users to better compare available technologies. That book contained over 400 technologies based on the following four scenarios to create product data sheets: man portable and field use; mobile laboratory/field laboratory; diagnostic laboratory or point of care use; and high-sensitivity, high-throughput analytical. With frequently changing technologies, though, that printed book was later converted to a freely accessible website resource in order to expand it and keep it up to date. The goal is to educate communities while remaining unbiased.

Emanuel warned that waiting until a technology is perfect could leave communities more vulnerable, “Stop making ‘perfect’ the enemy of the good.” In order to find a viable solution, all stakeholders need to be involved in the design process to ensure that all expectations and needs are addressed. There are different perceptions from local, state, and federal field responders. So, without presumptive diagnostics, the pressure falls on these responders to balance response actions with public expectations.

According to Emanuel, the DOD has 30-year plans for technology, but that is not always the case at the local level. ECBC’s efforts ensure that the lessons learned across the organization are shared. To meet the technological requirements of agencies and organizations, a combination of bottom up and top down approaches are needed. BioDefense Branch Chief Nicole Rosenzweig agreed, “There are things you can change and things you cannot change. We have to figure out ways to address the pieces that we can, so we can do a better job with the pieces that we can’t.”

Deploying the same technologies and capabilities at all levels is neither practical nor affordable. Emanuel questioned why there is not a greater civilian effort to position affordable and sustainable technology in smaller jurisdictions versus putting specialized equipment in every police vehicle that may not be as accurate or reliable (with higher false positives). Responders need to have technology that they can use to defend their decisions after a response. Although the DOD has an understanding of “acceptable loss,” Anthony Mangeri, director of strategic relations for fire services and emergency management and faculty member of the American Public University System, pointed out that, “in the civilian world, there is a very low tolerance for any losses,” especially under the microscopes of modern media and public perception.

These perceptions become even more pressing when public health issues are involved. However, Emanuel warned that a public health overlay for a clinical environment does not mesh evenly with the operational field paradigm, leaving a low or no tolerance for mistakes. However, in the operational world, he said, “the job is not to avoid risk but to manage it.” Such timelines and willingness to accept a tiered elevation of confidence has been at the center of tension between the military and the domestic homeland defense culture. The learning process does not end, of course, but reducing any percentage of risk is a move in the right direction. To avoid being separated by expectations, federal developers need to work closer with the user community.

Measuring Technology Performance

As a bio-identifier test bed, ECBC acquires optimal detectors for a particular use, tests the equipment in the field, and then provides feedback valuable to the manufacturers. This dynamic interplay improves technology through cooperative research and development agreements, thus determining whether the equipment meets the expectations of the buyers and assertions of the manufacturers. In some cases, equipment may work perfectly in a laboratory environment, but not as well in real-life scenarios – confounders include: effects of atmosphere, moisture, user interface, and sensitivity.

During the testing process of 16 bio-identification devices, which cost about $3 million, ECBC learned that interfacing with companies as well as equipment being geared toward the wrong enterprises are both gaps that need to be bridged. Since small industry cannot support the high cost of extensive testing as performed by ECBC, Emanuel suggested that the government provide an incubator site that could be shared throughout the technology industry as a possible solution. The military creates a more efficient use of its resources by incorporating them into dismounted reconnaissance sets, kits, and outfits (DRSKOs), but there are still disconnects. Large acquisitions like DRSKOs can be cumbersome and slow. However, by weeding out technologies at each step of the assessment, testing, and feedback process, the best technologies for their specified purposes can be identified.

Chemical Threats: A Test for Technology

Dr. Fred Berg, chemistry division chief of ECBC, briefed on chemical threats and how technology is used to detect them. Nerve agents like VX and GB (sarin) may be desirable by terrorists because of their toxicity and lethality per weight, with a rapid onset that receives more attention from the public and attribution for those deploying the agents. Although mustard is not designed to kill, such agents still pose a significant threat. In Syria, for example, 550 tons of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF) and distilled mustard (HD, which is 100-percent pure) were reportedly destroyed, but the Islamic State Group is using a relatively simple procedure of mixing sulfur and chlorine to create mustard (H), which is 20- to 40-percent pure. Unfortunately, not all instruments are tuned for such impure creations. Chemical library datasets are optimized to pure forms for better results, but also include impure variations. Berg described the Next-Generation Chemical Detector (NGCD) that ECBC is currently working on to solve this problem.

ECBC is one of about 30 Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) laboratories located around the world that analyzes agents. Twice a year, the OPCW conducts a “round robin” exercise to have specific agents tested by all the OPCW laboratories. The laboratory results are then graded to determine how well they were able to detect and identify specific agents. Detecting an agent that is not in the compound is an automatic failure, so it is critical that laboratories are able to accurately identify the ingredients of chemical compounds, while minimizing false negatives and eliminating false positives.

In the field, some scientific knowledge and a few thousand dollars are needed to create chemical weapons, but Berg noted that it only takes one person with such knowledge who could then train others. On the responder side, ensuring that the right people are trained to address these “home” laboratory threats is challenging. To address these threats, realistic training scenarios and coordination from the federal to local levels are needed. Other topics such as vaccination, crowd control, and quarantine need to be addressed as well, but can be controversial. In such cases, it is important to explain and weigh the good of the individual versus the good of the population – a concept that is more widely understandable and acceptable in the military than the civilian environment.

However, according to Melissa Moses, who is a senior analyst at SC&A Inc., even when exercises are conducted, involvement from all key stakeholders may decrease because of redundant or incomplete (not addressing the full range from left to right of “boom”) training, which is not effective for challenging people to keep their skills sharp. Understanding roles and bridging the gap between military and civilian response is also a challenge. She stated that there are sometimes uncertainties about when to notify authorities such as Civil Support Teams (CSTs) and gaps in local, state, and federal involvement (compartmentalization), which make response efforts less effective.

Biothreats: A Threat Like No Other

Dr. Calvin Chue, BioSciences Division deputy chief of ECBC, described how biological threats are different from other weapons of mass destruction threats. There are four types of biothreats, which change over time: traditional (naturally changing pathogens), enhanced (naturally or human-modifiable pathogens), emerging (new, but naturally occurring pathogens), and advanced (human-created pathogens). He explained how biothreats are the opposite of nuclear and chemical threats. In the case of chemical, nuclear, and other threats, hundreds to tens of thousands are affected in the early stages of the attack, with deaths and injuries decreasing over time. Conversely, bioattacks may not be visible initially, but the fatalities and injuries could exponentially increase over time – to as many as tens of millions after one year (see Figure 1). Such attacks could potentially be more devastating as they undermine society and create potential scenarios of public panic and marshal law.

WMD Mortality

Fig. 1. Comparison of the long-term mortality rates resulting from a radiological, biological, or chemical attack. (Source: Dr. Calvin Chue, 2016)

The differences between detection, financial investment, and technical skills needed for biological versus chemical agents are significant as well. For less than $1,000, Chue said that someone with limited technical skill could begin growing bacterial spores with equipment easily available on the internet – for example, fogging devices for dispersal of agents. Bioagents come from nature and, because they are living, distribute themselves naturally. Even small pathogen quantities can amplify in a vulnerable population. As they do not exist in the natural environment, chemical and radiological dangers can be identified almost instantaneously. Since pathogens are found in the environment, biological detectors could take 15 minutes to several days to detect and identify specific agents higher than normal background. Further, biological detectors are highly specific and tuned for dangerous levels of pathogens, possibly reducing utility for operational personnel.

Biologicals also do not have to be lethal to pose significant problems such as lowering combat effectiveness. Even a specific DNA blueprint cannot determine whether an agent is pathogenic or benign. Unfortunately, Chue said that contagiousness versus deadliness is not emphasized enough, despite being a critical decision factor. Sampling knowledge and capability are essential. For example, response to a deliberate, contagious smallpox release should not be the same as for a noncontagious anthrax release.

The Future of CBRNE Threats

Perpetrators of bioattacks include: cults, terrorists, disgruntled insiders, independent researchers, bad state actors, as well as scientists who tinker and create agents they did not expect. As convergence with nature (pigs, birds, horses, bats, seals, and humans) increases, the threat also will increase. The good news is that it does not require sophisticated personal protective equipment to create a barrier to infection, but protection may not be used until it is too late. For example, at security checkpoints, a simple pat down could be the mechanism for human-to-human transfer.

Enhancement in biochemical research enables researchers to interfere with and create vulnerabilities in critical cell pathways to: manipulate genes, recreate polio, create synthetic botoxins, enhance physical features, or cross breed organisms. Although the vast majority of such scientific efforts are for beneficial use, a nefarious actor with advanced scientific knowledge and facilities could target a bioagent to critical genes. Human genome sequencing once took years and cost millions of dollars, but now takes weeks and a few thousand dollars. Such rapid advancements herald an age of unprecedented medical technology, but the same tools can be used for evil. This is the classic “dual-use” conundrum that resulted in the formation of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in 2005.

As genetic databanks grow with ever-faster genome-sequencing ability, it raises questions about how that information will be used. The digital world made things faster, but at the same time more vulnerable. A new wave of genetic threats could be devastating, or “existence ending,” said Chue, and the researchers, “don’t have to be mad, just tinkering.” Despite all the above, highly contagious diseases like measles are Chue’s greatest concern because natural pathogen emergence and evolution are more likely and would affect far more people.

Developing technology and measuring its performance are essential for protecting emergency responders and the public when a CBRNE event occurs. ECBC provides valuable resources to help decision makers compare these technologies, make knowledgeable purchases, and equip responders in the field.

In This Issue

Melissa Moses leads this edition of the DomPrep Journal on “CBRNE Threats” with a warning for the intelligence community to remain current on rapidly developing technological advancements, which could have dual-use implications. Technology and equipment that once was only available in scientific and research environments may now be accessible on the internet.

Some technological advances increase levels of preparedness against CBRNE threats. For example, Greg Burel shares how government and public health agencies at all levels can leverage predictive technology resources provided by the Strategic National Stockpile to address potential failure points and build community resilience. Kathryn Laskey then describes an emerging affordable public safety smart system that could reduce deployment times during an emergency.

Rounding out the issue, two articles emphasize that knowledge is key for addressing the ever-changing threat environment: knowledge about federalism, politics, and disaster logistics described by William Austin; and knowledge about violent extremism, cybersecurity, and other international security issues addressed by Erik Gaull. Through discussion and research, preparedness professionals are better equipped to understand threats and vulnerabilities, develop actionable plans, and ultimately improve preparedness on the frontline.

 

Special thanks to the following writers, sponsors, panel participants, and ECBC staff who made this issue possible:
  • William Austin, Homeland Security Coordinator, Connecticut Capitol Region Council of Governments
  • Fred Berg, Chemistry Division Chief, ECBC
  • Greg Burel, Director of the Division of Strategic National Stockpile, Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Sean Carey, Government Regional Sales Manager, Dräger
  • Julie Carrera, Section Manager & Principal Chemist, Chem/Bio Analysis Section, Argonne National Laboratory’s Global Security Sciences Division
  • Calvin Chue, BioSciences Division Deputy Chief, ECBC
  • Barbara Dill, ECBC
  • Robert Dorsey, BioSensors Branch Chief, BioSciences Division, ECBC
  • Peter Emanuel, BioSciences Division Chief, ECBC
  • Erik Gaull, Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management Programs, Applied Research Associates Inc.
  • R. Ralston Hough IV, Research Intern, Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute, Department of Homeland Security, ANSER Inc.
  • Donald Kennedy Jr., Public Affairs and Communications Officer, ECBC
  • Kathryn Laskey, Professor of Systems Engineering & Associate Director, Center of Excellence in Command, Control Communications, Computing, Intelligence and Cyber (C4I & Cyber Center), George Mason University
  • Matt Lesho, Luminex Corp.
  • Anthony Mangeri, Director, Fire & Emergency SVS Strategic Relationships, American Military University, American Public University System
  • Melissa Moses, Senior Analyst, SC&A Inc.
  • Aaron Poynton, Executive, Federal Resources Supply Company
  • Mark Reuther, Vice President & General Manager, PROENGIN Inc. North America
  • Nicole Rosenzweig, ECBC
  • Eric Schaffer, ECBC

Catherine Feinman joined Team DomPrep in January 2010. As the editor-in-chief, she works with subject matter experts, advisors, and other contributors to build and create relevant content. With more than 25 years of experience in publishing, she heads the DomPrep Advisory Committee to facilitate new and unique content for today’s emergency preparedness and resilience professionals. She also holds various volunteer positions, including emergency medical technician, firefighter, and member of the Media Advisory Panel of EMP SIG (InfraGard National Members Alliance).