GAO cites problems with response tools

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GAO Report

The nation’s first responders still lack sufficient tools to respond to a terrorist attack involving the release of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) materials in an urban area despite several federal initiatives undertaken since the terrorist attacks of 2001, according to government auditors.

Although the equipment used by the country’s urban police, fire and emergency response personnel can detect radiological and nuclear materials, it cannot predict how the materials will disperse in urban areas, according to a 3 1/2-year investigation by Government Accountability Office. In addition, models created by different federal agencies that predict atmospheric dispersion of CBRN agents in urban areas have shown "an unpredictable range of uncertainty," and available commercial chemical and biological detection devices range in their capabilities.

Currently, no federal agency has been tasked to develop, certify and test equipment that first responders use to identify radiological and nuclear materials, according to the study. Moreover, although the Homeland Security Department tests and certifies chemical- and biological-detection equipment that the department is developing for first responders, the effectiveness of detection equipment that localities purchase is not independently verified by federal authorities.

“A formalized process needs to be established for the evaluation and validation of manufacturers’ claims regarding commercial biodetection equipment,” the report concluded.

The report, released June 27, also said DHS’ nationwide environmental monitoring system, BioWatch, does not provide immediate, real-time data to first responders regarding biological threats. In addition, the interagency group established to coordinate dispersion modeling predictions does not have procedures in place to reconcile contradicting predictions.

In a letter to lawmakers accompanying the report, auditors explained the need for first responders to have accurate and timely information about the type and quantity of material that has been released and information on how far the threat could spread.

“The first line of defense in any terrorist attack on the United States is its first responder community — police officers, firefighters, emergency medical providers, public works personnel and emergency management officials,” the report states.

To solve the problems, GAO recommended that the DHS secretary:

• Reach an agreement with agencies on who has the mission and responsibility to develop, certify and independently test the first responders’ detection equipment.

• Ensure the validation of manufacturers' claims about the sensitivity and specificity of commercial detection equipment used by first responders.

• Improve the ability of the Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment Center (IMAAC) to reconcile contradictory dispersion models from different federal agencies.

•Work with IMAAC to accelerate efforts to improve dispersion modeling for urban areas.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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