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FEATURE ARTICLE  

 Pentagon Chem-Bio Program Expands to Homeland Missions  

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 Grace Jean

 

The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security are seeking to homogenize the equipment that military units and local first responders employ to detect and neutralize toxic agents.

The Defense Department, as a result, plans to shift resources to non-traditional chem-bio areas, such as cleaning up contaminated sites following natural disasters, officials said.

"As we look at our ability to respond to requirements under the homeland defense strategy, we're going to need those kinds of capabilities. So we're working very closely with DHS on a number of applications of this technology in ways different than we had been applying them," said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Reeves, who oversees the procurement of all Pentagon chemical and biological defense equipment.

The Defense Department plans to pick up projects within the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) technology area that are unrelated to its traditional mission, said Col. Ben Hagar, deputy director for science and technology at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

"That's a broader set of challenges than we have had traditionally," said Reeves. Rather than simply providing an alert for a chemical or biological warfare attack, "we've got to figure out how to provide protection and decontamination of some of these materials."

The Defense Department and DHS, along with the U.S. Postal Service, have signed a memorandum of understanding that provides a framework for coordinated detection and response efforts in the event of a bio-terror attack, Reeves' spokesman said.

Other joint agency projects include the development of next-generation biological weapons detection devices and testing mobile interior systems to work toward national standards for building decontamination.

As operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, Reeves must also contend with equipment requirements.

The need for rapid identification of potentially harmful chemical and biological agents-and increasingly, toxic industrial chemicals and materials-in the battlefield is urgent, he said.

"The commanders are faced everyday with folks walking into buildings and finding stuff. And what they really want to know is, 'what is it?' And secondly, 'is it dangerous?' And thirdly, if it's dangerous, 'what do I do about it?'" he said.

The Army's chemical corps has dealt with what Reeves terms the "classic" chemical or biological weapons threats, such as anthrax, VX, and other agents. But it traditionally has not dealt with the toxic industrial chemical situations found in developed nations. Those tasks have been relegated to specialized teams, such as the Marine Corps' chemical biological incident response force, the Army's technical escort units and the National Guard's civil support teams.

But Reeves said the Army plans to move the chemical corps closer to the high-end capability found in those specialized units.

"My challenge, I think, is to provide equipment that's going to lessen the training work. Right now the very best equipment that we provide requires a lot of training. It requires a lot of expertise behind it. But we want to try to reduce that burden," said Reeves.

Part of that challenge is to ensure such equipment conforms to the size limitations of vehicles, such as Humvees, which have been outfitted with additional armor.

"We have for a long time said that we want things smaller. Now we are really forced into that situation. And we have to package our equipment so that it fits inside up-armored Humvees," said Reeves.

While trying to equip the service with better detection and protection capabilities, Reeves also must work to standardize that equipment.

Last fall's hurricanes highlighted the importance of having interoperable capabilities between military and civilian first responders. The office deployed equipment to the affected areas to identify toxic materials and analyze unknown substances in the field.

"The larger issues we were concerned with, particularly in the Houston-Galveston area, were the toxic industrial chemicals, toxic industrial materials," said Reeves. Those two areas happened to have a large concentration of superfund sites that posed an uncontained threat to first responders, he said. The office provided simulations to help determine how hazardous materials released in the region might move through the air and water.

In addition to providing detection equipment, the office also deployed a communications system to National Guard civil support teams in the region.

"The unified command suite has worked superbly in providing that switch between the civilian sector and our military sector, and I would anticipate that we're going to see more calls for that kind of communications interoperability," said Reeves.

The joint program executive office for chemical and biological defense is working with the DHS standards office to establish the same sort of interoperability, he said.

"We are actively engaged with that office to ensure that we get common standards," Reeves said. "Obviously there are going to be instances where those standards are not going to be exact matches. But to the extent that we can, we are very much focused on ensuring that we have common standards between the military and our civilian groups."

For example, he said, "you've got a level 'A' suit. You need to have an oxygen tank that you could refill from a common filling station. You find that because of a lack of standards in that area, some oxygen tanks will work on those filling stations, and some won't."

Reeves has been working on the standards issue for some time. Progress has been slow because the effort involves numerous private and public agencies, and "all parties must agree on each step in the process, from the units of measure to the type and method of testing and validation," his office said.

"I think we're getting better at it," Reeves told National Defense. "I think establishing floors for these standards" is important, and as we learn more, "those floors are going to get lower."

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