Every day, across the nation, first responders are called to investigate suspicious white powders. While nearly everything they respond to is a hoax, they must treat every incident as if the powder could be anthrax or other dangerous substances. Every sample must be sent to and analyzed at a public health laboratory, which takes a day or more. However, many first responders also use commercially available, portable biodetection equipment for analysis on the scene. This allows the responders to make an initial, rough assessment and provide preliminary guidance to individuals who might have come in contact with the substances.
The number of portable biodetectors has grown exponentially in the last decade. During this time, first responders could try different devices, but they didn't have independent, standardized comparisons to determine which devices better met their needs. To assist first responders, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate's (S&T) Chemical and Biological Defense Division (CBD), recently released the latest First Responder Biodetection Technology Report and survey to better determine biotechnology needs and operating procedures. CBD's partner, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Department of Energy laboratory, operates and updates the website. Continual research is done on devices and it is updated twice a year. The project works hand-in-hand to ensure first responders have the tools they need now and in the future.
On January 8, CBD and PNNL announced the release of the Biodetection Guide for First Responders mobile app designed to give first responders easy access to information on technologies and kits for the collection and detection of potential biological threats while in the field.
Responders can browse, search, and find product details. The app can be downloaded free from the iTunes store, but is currently only available for Apple mobile devices. "Our goal is to improve bioresponse capabilities and to advance overall effectiveness and safety," explained Anne Hultgren, CBD acting director and the program manager for the project. "What we've done is conduct independent performance tests on a broad range of technologies to determine the capabilities, strengths and weaknesses of each."
The report provides a comprehensive review of commercially available biodetection equipment. Each review includes Web links, equipment specifications, pricing and annotated references from peer-reviewed publications to assist first responders in making informed acquisition purchases. Each device is evaluated to ensure they can tell if biological material is present and if they can identify specific agents. They are also evaluated on ease of use, weight, size and cost. CBD's report can increase responders' confidence that the device they choose will quickly and accurate identify agents so they can take the correct next steps.
In the event of a white powder incident, Hultgren explained affected individuals generally want to know if they should seek medical attention, if the facility is safe to work in and how to safely and thoroughly clean the powder and facility. By using the portable biodetection equipment, first responders can feel more confident about the initial assessments of the powder and the guidance they provide while they wait for the official results to return from the public health lab.
"We're not replacing the requirement to have samples of every incident reviewed at a public health lab," Hultgren stressed. "We're giving responders enough information to make a decision on the ground, immediately, while they are waiting for that result to get back."
The ongoing survey will guide the next iteration of the report.
"The survey looks to the future," Hultgren said. "It is a means for us to understand what types of technologies people currently use, capability gaps or challenges and operational procedures, and it will inform how we provide information in the future."
Materials provided by Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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