The United States is a target-rich environment for CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and/or nuclear) terrorism. There is a compelling need, therefore, for a strategy that takes into account the efforts already taken and provides an overarching framework to enhance the nation’s first-responder abilities to detect and prevent future CBRN incidents.
There are already many individual and collaborative efforts going on that should contribute constructively to the development of more advanced anti-CBRN technologies and equipment. The first step in the process to meet current and future needs, it seems reasonable to say, is to develop an overall picture of current and future development scenarios. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and industry stakeholders should then expand and evaluate the development timeline and agree on a strategic process for implementation. Fortunately, significant research in analyzing and improving technological capabilities has been carried out in a number of fields – including but not limited to the following: mass spectrometry, ion mobility spectroscopy (IMS), infrared (IR) spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), dose meters, Geiger-Muller detectors, and scintillation detectors.
The developers of today’s advanced-technology detection systems are trying to improve both their functionality (improved sensitivity as well as greater selectivity) and their performance (particularly their portability). In today’s environment of heightened security, governments are investigating numerous ways to ensure the safety of their citizens. DHS, along with other U.S. public agencies and private-sector organizations – e.g., government/private laboratories, academic institutions, and private-sector businesses – are working to develop even more advanced and innovative CBRN technologies through programs funded by numerous organizations and agencies. The new high-tech systems now emerging are expected to provide more accurate and precise information to emergency responders so that they may take appropriate action both before an incident occurs and after the release – either deliberate or intentional – of CBRN agents.
Current trends in the industry are focused on developing technology for detection instruments that will be characterized by improved sensitivity and selectivity, a broader detection range, a more rapid monitoring speed, a real-time detection capability, and reduced false-alarm rates. The instrumentation platform itself should ideally be compact, lightweight, portable, and flexible. Additional technological advances – e.g., the use of semiconductor integrated circuit (IC), telecommunications, networking, and information systems – will undoubtedly add significantly to the development of even more advanced CBRN detection systems.
Significant Progress – But a Long, Hard Road Ahead
As today’s highly charged, technology-driven world moves forward, it can be safely assumed that there will be even greater advances within the foreseeable future. The introduction of wireless sensor networks, for example, and the development, production, and use of more sophisticated modeling and simulation tools should be of immense help to emergency responders – and to those involved in the decision making process. Several years ago the introduction of “bio-watch” systems to major metropolitan areas proved that stand-off biological perimeter monitoring systems and devices can work – to a certain extent. However, the precision, accuracy, specificity, and selectivity of such systems are still somewhat short of what is required, which means that additional upgrades and refinements are still needed in this field. There is a similar need to develop, test, and install highly capable chemical and radiological detection systems and devices.
Several government agencies, and private-sector companies and corporations, already are researching the possibility of developing, building, and installing detection systems that can view several types of CBRN agents at the same time to provide an early warning of each and all of those threats – and there has been impressive progress in several closely related research and development (R&D) efforts. Nonetheless, it also has become apparent that there is a parallel need, to ensure optimum use, to identify the most suitable locations for deploying and installing these and other improved detectors.
As in the past, another issue likely to challenge developers is the building of portable, economical, lightweight, real-time detectors characterized by low power consumption – in a long-term detection mode – while also facilitating user dexterity. Another important factor to consider is that most if not all current government-funded R&D programs in CBRN are in the chemical and biological detection fields; these efforts should be augmented and/or replicated in the radiological and nuclear detection fields as well.
As the industry moves forward in the development of CBRN detection equipment, it will be extremely difficult to maintain its focus on the current threats now facing the nation’s responder community. There are, however, many emerging trends that provide an insight into various encouraging development initiatives around the globe in CBRN detection technologies, current development scenarios, adoption factors, and technological development strengths – and, of at least equal but perhaps greater importance, some gaps and shortfalls as well. A dispassionate analysis of the still growing number of terrorist attacks that have occurred and are continuing to occur around the world should demonstrate that the United States is still not immune from many of the major CBRN threats now facing the nation – and may never be. For that reason alone, there must be not merely continued, but increased, concern over chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism.
Glen Rudner retired in 2022 as a manager of environmental operations for the Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway with environmental compliance and operations responsibilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Previously, he was the hazardous materials compliance officer for NS’s Alabama Division (covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southwestern Tennessee). Prior to NS, he served as one of the general managers at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. He worked as a private consultant and retired as a hazardous materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has nearly 42 years of experience in public safety. He spent 12 years as a career firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the City of Alexandria Fire Department, as well as a former volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician, and officer. As a subcontractor, he served as a consultant and assisted in developing training programs for local, state, and federal agencies. He serves as secretary for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee, a member of the American Society of Testing and Materials, and a former co-chairman of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. He served as a member of the FEMA NAC RESPONSE Subcommittee.