Needed: More Biothreat Training for First Responders

In its December 2008 “World at Risk” report, the U.S. Congress’s Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism emphatically declared that biological weapons are the most dangerous threat the United States is facing. That report, issued by a commission led by two respected former senators – Democrat Robert “Bob” Graham and Republican James “Jim” Matthes Talent – and a score of distinguished scientists, should not have been easy to ignore; but that is exactly what the federal government has done.

The report did not arbitrarily dismiss the threats posed by nuclear and chemical weapons, but the former are very difficult to obtain, emplace, and actually use, and the nation’s first responders are reasonably well trained and equipped to deal with the latter, so the threat posed by biological weapons is still probably the worst-case scenario to deal with. For example, when movies or television shows portray a biological attack, they often evoke an overwhelming fear. Moreover, despite possessing a fairly sophisticated medical response system, U.S. citizens are still woefully underprepared, at best, to deal with a biological threat. Rather than serving as a motivator, therefore, the “fear factor” associated with biological weapons seems to have actually caused many citizens to ignore the threat – apparently hoping that it will simply go away.

First Responders, First Line of Defense 

Making the nation even more vulnerable to biological threats is the fact that many critics have called for the defunding of programs such as the federal government’s Project BioShield – largely because it cannot yet produce perfect results. Another complication is that there also has been a lack of biothreat training for law enforcement officers, firefighters, and even emergency medical responders, primarily because such training is: too complicated; and/or too highly science-related. These criticisms seem to ignore the fact that the nation’s first responders are and will continue to be the first line of defense in dealing with biological attacks, just as they are in more “traditional” attack scenarios.

Although many first responders have received the extensive training needed to cope with chemical or explosive threat agents, the present system of relying on local doctors and nurses to serve as the initial “detection” screen for biological threat agents continues. This is despite the fact that, to augment and expand the current system, there is an urgent need to give other responders additional training in the signs and symptoms related to biothreat incidents.

Around the world today, the biowarfare threat posed by rogue nations, terrorist groups, and individual “lone wolf” terrorists seems likely to become incrementally worse for the foreseeable future. Moreover, those seeking to develop or purchase virulent bioweapons will not hesitate to use them. In short, the threat posed by biological terrorism is today not receding. As U.S. and allied intelligence and law enforcement teams have made it more difficult for other nations (or groups) to successfully execute conventional attacks, the attackers are more likely to turn to other weapons, such as bioagents.

Obviously, current U.S. efforts to develop and improve the nation’s technological biodetection capabilities must continue and expand. Moreover, the training of personnel working in the biowarfare field require more training. The U.S. Army Chemical School at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, is the principal U.S. Department of Defense facility for training in all aspects of response to attacks involving weapons of mass destruction of any type. Such training, therefore, would probably be the best starting point for developing a viable, exportable program of instruction for not only military personnel but also for law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. The rationale is obvious: U.S. responders, civilian as well as military, must know what to look for, how to carry out the field testing of biological agents, and – using all relevant means of detection – how to recognize patterns.

A Race Against Time & Strain 

Combating the destructive effects of bioweapons will always be a race against both time and the biological strain released. A concerted effort is now urgently needed to push the limits of education and training for the nation’s frontline defenders. Overworked emergency-room doctors should not be the only “intellectual trip wires” available to recognize and cope with a bioweapon incident. The threat is simply too great, and an enabling solution is readily available, so there is no valid reason not to begin mitigating this obviously major threat.

In fact, the domestic response community should reach out to the military, the nation’s public health authorities, and the scientific community, in an effort to immediately begin developing the instructions needed to expand and improve the bio-related diagnostic and response capabilities of all of the nation’s first responders. Each person directly involved should become a “detector” – and all members of the domestic response community should be provided the tools and training necessary to effectively counter this most dangerous of the numerous threats now facing the nation.

Additional contributions to this article were made by Captain Philip S. Bucci, a U.S. Army Chemical Corps officer who graduated from both the Officer Basic and Advanced Courses at Ft. Leonard Wood. Trained to deal with chemical incidents, as well as nuclear and biological hazards, he uses his expertise to prepare other military first responders as they ready themselves for deployments both at home and overseas. He also is a skilled practitioner in incident-response operations.

Steven P. Bucci

Steven P. Bucci, Ph.D., former Green Beret, is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He also is an adjunct professor of leadership at George Mason University and an associate professor of terrorism studies and cyber security policy at Long Island University. He serves on the advisory board of the MIT Geospatial Data Center and is an advisor to the Prince of Wales/Prince Edward Fellowship program at MIT and Harvard. He previously served as a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy and as a special forces commander in the U.S. Army, where he assumed the duties of military assistant to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. After retiring from the Army in 2005, he served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and defense support to civil authorities at the Pentagon, and was the primary civilian overseer of U.S. Northern Command.

Jennifer Corrente-Bucci

Jennifer Corrente-Bucci is a Summa Cum Laude Graduate from Lee University in Bio-Chem. Her knowledge of the hard science concepts required to appropriately address the requirements of domestic preparedness is exceptional. Combined with her present efforts to obtain an advanced degree in Homeland Security Management, she is an outstanding resource for advancing the study of how to best ready the nation’s response forces.



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