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Homeland Security: First Responders' Ability to Detect and Model Hazardous Releases in Urban Areas Is Significantly Limited

GAO-08-180 Published: Jun 27, 2008. Publicly Released: Jun 27, 2008.
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First responders are responsible for responding to terrorist-related and accidental releases of CBRN materials in urban areas. Two primary tools for identifying agents released and their dispersion and effect are equipment to detect and identify CBRN agents in the environment and plume models to track the dispersion of airborne releases of these agents. GAO reports on the limitations of the CBRN detection equipment, its performance standards and capabilities testing, plume models available for tracking urban dispersion of CBRN materials, and information for determining how exposure to CBRN materials affects urban populations. To assess the limitations of CBRN detection equipment and urban plume modeling for first responders' use, GAO met with and obtained data from agency officials and first responders in three states.


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should reach agreement with Department of Defense (DOD), Dertment of Energry (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other agencies involved with developing, testing, and certifying CBRN detection equipment on which agency should have the missions and responsibilities to develop, independently test, and certify detection equipment that first responders can use to detect hazardous material releases in the atmosphere.
Closed – Not Implemented
DHS notes that since 2008, DHS and several other federal agencies have been working together with the National Science and Technical Council (NSTC) Subcommittee on Standards. The subcommittee has been chartered to develop a roadmap of the development of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) detection equipment and identify needed performance standards for this equipment. This would include identifying which agency would support such standards development. While DHS and others are working on addressing the issue of performance standards, it has not yet been determined which agencies should have the missions and responsibilities to develop, independently test and certify detection equipment for first responders to use to detect hazardous material in the atmosphere. Thus while DHS continues its efforts in this area, we consider this recommendation not yet fully implemented.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should ensure that manufacturers' claims are independently tested and validated regarding whether their commercial off-the-shelf CBRN detection equipment can detect given hazardous material at specific sensitivities.
Closed – Not Implemented
DHS's Science and Technology Director is working with other federal agencies to develop standards through its co-chairmanship of the NSTC SOS. According to DHS, the specifications incorporated into such standards and the associated test protocols, are needed to guide the efforts of manufacturers and equipment developers, among other things. However, DHS states while it cannot comment on the future test, evaluation, and certification efforts of other agencies, it is committed to those efforts for CBRN detectors purchased with DHS grant funds. Thus, while DHS continues its efforts in this area, this recommendation is not fully implemented
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should refine IMAAC's procedures by working with other federal, state, and local agencies to (1) develop common/joint IMAAC emergency response practices, including procedures for dealing with contradictory plume modeling information from other agencies during a CBRN event; (2) refine the concept of operations for chemical, biological, and radiological releases; and (3) delineate the type and scale of major CBRN incidents that would qualify for IMAAC assistance.
Closed – Not Implemented
DHS notes that while IMAAC coordinates federal plume modeling, it is not intended to replace or supplant the atmospheric transport and dispersion modeling activities already in place to meet agency-specific mission needs. DHS has taken several actions, including effort to refine the concept of operations for different types of atmospheric releases. For example, an IMAAC interagency working group is developing incident specific annexes to the IMAAC standard operating procedures (SOP). Also efforts are underway to delineate responsibilities for a type-specific incident technical review of IMAAC plume modeling products. In addition, the IMAAC SOP was updated to provide guidance on the type and scales of events for which IMAAC assistance would be warranted. DHS has also undertaken several other efforts and plans others. However, to date, DHS has not fully implemented this recommendation.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should, in conjunction with IMAAC, work with the federal plume modeling community to accelerate research and development to address plume model deficiencies in urban areas and improve federal modeling and assessment capabilities. Such efforts should include improvements to meteorological information, plume models, and data sets to evaluate plume models.
Closed – Not Implemented
DHS has funded some research efforts aimed at addressing deficiencies in meteorological information, plume models and data sets to support plume model validation.DHS states that it has also been working with DHS customers and representatives from the first responder community; a number of plume modeling gaps have been identified.DHS notes that programs to address these gaps are ongoing. For example, an effort is underway to improve the dense gas algorithms for large-scale chemical releases, such as a tanker car filled with liquid chlorine. Also, field experiments have been conducted to gather field data that could be sued to support validation of existing models. While DHS is involved in several efforts, these are still ongoing. Therefore this recommendation Is not fully implemented.

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