Preparedness: Protecting Facilities Against CBRN Threats

Protecting people in public places and ensuring resiliency of the critical U.S. infrastructure against potential terrorist attacks and other serious threats remains an enduring need. Terrorist attacks on commercial and federal facilities have the potential to be socioeconomically devastating. In recent years, terrorists have attacked critical government facilities – the U.S. Embassy in Peshawar, Pakistan, for example – and other sites with the potential to be psychologically debilitating (Times Square in New York City). In response to new terrorist tactics and techniques, security policies and procedures continue to evolve, largely to defeat the most likely terrorist weapon: explosives. While this has certainly been a vital step, similar safeguards must also be implemented to defeat or, at a minimum, mitigate the effects caused by terrorist employment of chemical, biological, radiological, and/or nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

Earlier this year, members of the bi-partisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) Proliferation and Terrorism concluded their study and released a report stating that the world can expect a terrorist attack based on nuclear or biological materials by the year 2013 ( The report also states that the weapon of choice will most likely be biological, and cites direct evidence that terrorists are seeking WMDs. It is doubtful that current procedures and technologies – e.g., checkpoint screening techniques – will be effective in preventing or mitigating the effects of the use of CBRN weapons. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recognized this vulnerability and listed CBRN security as a high priority for U.S. infrastructure protection.

Current approaches for protecting buildings against CBRN threats are both costly and complex, and lack the flexibility needed to tailor the level of protection for the facility managers. Furthermore, these approaches focus solely on the detection of hazardous threats, often neglecting the necessary response functions after a threat has been detected. The common objective of systems that address the vulnerabilities should be to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a CBRN attack as well as to minimize the requirements for consequence management. Even with this knowledge, the priority levels for CBRN threat mitigation seem inversely proportional to the time elapsed since the most recent event. However, the probability of attack remains the same and thus the need for countermeasures continues.

Although the potential loss of life would be a great tragedy, decision-makers must also consider, in dollar amounts, the value of investing in systems and technologies that decrease the risks or impact of a CBRN attack. The costs associated with both the procurement and total lifecycle operation of CBRN capabilities is a concern. After a catastrophic event, however, there is also a monetary impact in terms of cleanup and lost productivity. When those numbers are summed, the investment in protective systems is modest.

The saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is applicable here. In comparison, building codes and insurance regulations to build fire suppression systems in facilities are enforced to mitigate such a hazard. If there is never a fire, there is never a return on these investments. However, if there is a fire and the building is not consumed, it is money well spent. Current concepts for CBRN protection can provide this same type of capability at a manageable cost.

Installing CBRN protection systems is not simply a matter of procuring devices and installing them. Owing to their differing requirements, building protection approaches must offer comprehensive, yet scalable, systems-level solutions for federal and commercial facilities that address all of the detection, protection, and mitigation aspects of CBRN threats. In the event of a CBRN attack, early warning and rapid response can reduce injuries to people, damage to assets, and disruption of operations.

Technical approaches that leverage today’s technologies while planning for the future are required for critical infrastructures that employ features deemed necessary or desirable for their defensive posture. Capabilities for application of critical infrastructures would support the rapid detection and networking of sensors for prompt, automated, real-time reporting and notification of CBRN threats. Following detection, notification should be remotely monitored and linked into inherent physical security and facilities management functions. Protection of the facility and its occupants can be accomplished through mechanical controls of ventilation systems, and further mitigated by utilization of decontamination techniques.

Evolving threats and the tools to thwart them have promoted technical advancements with the seemingly simple goal of reducing the size, simplifying the use, and increasing the effectiveness of CBRN detection technologies. Strategically leveraging the breadth of solutions available across the existing vulnerabilities should promote the adoption of layered approaches for protection of critical infrastructures. Capabilities range from simple monitoring systems to low-cost triggers to highly sensitizedentification devices. Collectively, these capabilities afford opportunities for federal and commercial stakeholders to re-evaluate CBRN protection of critical infrastructures. Integration of CBRN building protection systems with physical security and facilities management functions will support increased situational awareness via a single command and control system. This data fusion provides the capability for security and response personnel to timelyentify the location and nature of the threat(s).

Capitalizing on the industry’s capacity for technological innovation, emphasis should continue toward pressing the evolution of operational concepts in which multiple sensors detect multiple threats versus a single, comprehensive device. Layered frameworks should allow facility owners to achieve their goals for protection within desired sustainment costs. Today, however, no single technology represents the proverbial silver bullet that will solve the problem posed by CBRN threats. Clever solutions are required to address the integration and effective systematic layering of diverse technological approaches. The goal should be to strive for an application that achieves institutionalized CBRN critical infrastructure protection.

David W. Cullin

David W. Cullin is the vice president of research, development and programs for FLIR Detection. Previously, he served for seven plus years in the U.S. Department of Defense's Chemical and Biological Defense Program. As the Director of Technology at the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, he focused on new technology that would help the U.S. armed forces counter weapons of mass destruction. Before that, he directed the DOD Critical Reagents Program and led the technical team in the development of what is now the Department of Defense's (DOD) Portal Shield BW detection system. He joined the Defense Department in 1991, as a research chemist with the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, after earning his Ph.D. in Chemistry at The Ohio State University.



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