Biothreat Response: Local Emergency Response Efforts for Suspicious and Unknown Substances

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Craig Dowdell


“Beyond those day-to-day tasks of bridging the foreign-domestic divide and matching intelligence with plans … challenges include broader management issues pertaining to how the top leaders of government set priorities and allocate resources.”
—The 9/11 Commission Report
Although the United States, both in the public and private sectors, has strengthened its emergency response system to improve its ability to respond to, mitigate, and recover from attacks, there are gaps that must be addressed if the nation is to be truly prepared. Each time the nation has been tested by its adversaries, whether foreign or domestic, response and recovery efforts have improved: responders pooled resources, for example, to respond to the World Trade Center bombings in 1993; the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta; the 1997 Family Planning Clinic bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama; and on the fateful day of September 11, 2001. Following each response effort, leaders at all levels of government analyze their shortcomings and address the gaps by implementing standards and protocols to become better prepared. The country faced a tough test, however, only a week after September 11th, when a weaponized biological agent known as Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax, was released into the environment, resulting in multiple casualties. At the time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its partners were investigating the September 11th attacks; simultaneously, they were tasked with the anthrax investigation, a bioterrorism case that became known as Amerithrax. This thesis explores the threat of suspicious and unknown substances with a biothreat hazard, the historical narrative of Amerithrax, the strengths and weaknesses of the response, and the evolution of preparedness at the various levels of government.
During the Amerithrax attacks in 2001, local, state, and federal resources were deployed to investigate numerous incidents nationwide involving suspicious and unknown substances. Resources were stretched thin as agencies attempted to address the calls for service; because technology was not advanced enough, investigators could not figure out the unknown agent that was causing the damage, and field samples had to be taken to the few certified laboratories for testing. The process was slow and not cost-effective.
In 2006, the FBI partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to address the shortcomings of the Amerithrax response. They determined that they needed to standardize a process for sample collection and field screening for rapid preliminary determination of suspicious and unknown substances. They recognized, too, that laboratories needed to be certified and specialized to rapidly process samples taken from the field. Today, as a result of these findings, a definitive assessment of a substance can be distributed to stakeholders within twelve to seventy-two hours. Also as a result of this effort, the FBI formed the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD) in 2006. This directorate was tasked with taking the lead on all bioterrorism threats within the continental United States and U.S. territories abroad; eventually, the directorate would include fifty-six field offices, each staffed with a liaison between the FBI and all response stakeholders. The CDC also worked with the FBI to increase the number of laboratories available to conduct definitive testing, creating the Laboratory Response Network, or LRN. Most LRN facilities are state-level health laboratories tasked with testing possible biothreat agents. All LRN and WMDD personnel operate under mandated laws, policies, and procedures to ensure consistency in equipment, as well as in mitigation, response, and recovery efforts.
The Amerithrax case was unique because the biological substance used was delivered via the United States Postal Service (USPS); as a result of the decade-long investigation that followed, the USPS now trains its postal inspectors to respond to and investigate suspicious substances that have traveled through the mail system. The technology they use to conduct sampling and field screening is approved by legal standards, and the inspectors work closely with the FBI to ensure that their response capability is consistent with the LRNs and CDC.
Another lesson learned from Amerithrax is that the response capabilities of state and federal partners can be dependent on local responders. Suspicious and unknown substances are not always delivered through the mail or discovered at the federal level; it is therefore imperative that local law enforcement, fire, and hazardous materials (hazmat) personnel can begin an initial investigation. Amerithrax proved that a biological agent can cause mass casualties and costly environmental damage if the process of detecting that agent—or determining what it is—is slowed or halted. If local first responders can begin field sampling and screening in such cases, they can expedite determination and response efforts. It is during this crisis response phase at the local level that research has shown a transition to long-term investigation and health management of a biological release can be hindered if the local responders are not consistent in mitigation, response, and recovery efforts. State and federal partners cannot start a threat credibility evaluation without initial results from local resources. This means that, if a threat is valid and local responders do not have the ability to respond in a consistent, coordinated manner, the state and federal investigations are stalled, which may result in increased casualties.
As a result of Amerithrax, state and federal partners recognized their challenges and adjusted for future response measures; however, local government agencies do not always understand the importance of strong countermeasures when faced with a biological threat. Consistency at the local level is imperative for a coordinated and effective response to suspicious and unknown substances. Although there are policies, procedures, and guidelines written for local first responders that allow these agencies to govern themselves, the guidelines and polices are not enforceable like they are at the state and federal level. As result, there is no consistency among local jurisdictions nationwide. Training, equipment, and operational procedures on the ground have not improved, even after lessons learned from Amerithrax. It is imperative that decision-makers at the local level begin to look at how they improve their response capability to enhance biothreat preparedness to prevent another Amerithrax. This thesis recommend training initiatives, as well as the formation of a new working group to address shortcomings at the local level.

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