Belgium improves CBRNe preparedness through monitoring


By Mr. Barend Cochez, Federal Police Liaison Officer, Belgian National Crisis Center; Dr. Ir. Franck Limonier, CBRN Coordinator, Sciensano; Ms. Laura Demullier, Spokesperson, Belgian National Crisis Center; Dr. Tinne Lernout, Coordinator, Scientific Institute of Public Health and, Ms. An Fremout, Section Manager Health Protection, Belgian Federal Agency for Nuclear Control

Belgium has not been spared from terrorist attacks, the most heinous onslaught being the attacks on the 22nd of March 2016 at Zaventem airport and in the Maelbeek metro station, which left a total of 32 dead and hundreds injured. These attacks on our nation occurred relatively soon in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris (November 2015). Although no chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) substances were used in these strikes, it became imperative to have an operational plan ready in case terrorists make use of such substances, whether their dispersion is facilitated by explosives or not (CBRNe). After all, there have been a number of CBRNe incidents in Europe and the UK in recent years. For instance, the novichok attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter had a severe impact on the relief and crisis management and showed the need for improved resilience against CBRNe threats.

In Europe, the 2017 “Action Plan to enhance preparedness against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security risks” called for a closer cooperation at EU level, including the setting of cross-border support mechanisms such as the European Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM). Importantly, the timely onset of such mechanisms relies on early warning systems and effective monitoring, from which the collected information should be promptly shared across sectors and across Member States. The different existing rapid alert and information systems should be also reviewed and linked to each other, in order to improve the situational awareness and de facto the incident management.

In this context, a CBRNe Expertise Center was created within the Belgian National Crisis Center of the Ministry of the Interior. This center is a multidisciplinary platform coordinated by the Crisis Center’s Emergency Planning Service, where experts on CBRNe matters from different sectors collaborate in an integrated manner for preparing for CBRNe emergency situations and providing crisis management support in the event of real CBRNe emergency situations. In this perspective, the Center tries to gather and share to the relevant stakeholders the data collected through existing national early warning and monitoring systems. Among these, TELERAD, RAG-RMG and BE-Alert are considered as important systems used in Belgium to raise the resilience to CBRNe risks.

TELERAD – radioactivity measuring, monitoring and early warning

In Belgium, radioactivity is continuously measured and monitored by the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) via its TELERAD network. Over 250 stations scattered across the Belgian territory measure radioactivity levels in the air and in rivers.

The stations are connected to a central system. As soon as an alert threshold is exceeded, an alarm is triggered and the FANC, which is also represented at the CBRNe Expertise Center, examines the situation. Anyone can consult the automatic telemetry network’s data on this website.

TELERAD allows for the real-time detection of any situation of increased radioactivity that, at the highest degree of severity, could trigger the implementation of the national Nuclear Emergency Plan. In the event of a nuclear emergency, TELERAD will play an important role in the decision-making process, in optimising the interventions, in taking countermeasures and in continuously informing the population.

The EU, too, operates a network for exchanging radiological measurement data among participating countries, including Belgium. This network can be consulted in real-time here.

Risk Assessment Group/Risk Management Group

The Risk Assessment Group (RAG) and the Risk Management Group (RMG) were created by the Belgian authorities in 2007 following the 2005 WHO International Health Regulations and, subsequently, Decision No 1082/2013/EU of the European Parliament and European Council on serious cross-border threats to health. The role of the RAG is to analyse any signal that may have an impact on public health and to propose prevention and control measures to the health authorities. Threats signals information exchange is also performed with the Early Warning and Response System of the European Union (EWRS) hosted by the European Centre for Diseases Control (ECDC).

The RAG is coordinated by the scientific institute Sciensano and is composed of permanent experts (public health professionals), supported by specific experts depending on the type of event (infection, environmental problem, etc.). Based on the advice of the RAG, the RMG decides which measures are needed to protect public health. The RMG consists of representatives of the health authorities and is chaired by the National Focal Point for the International Health Regulations. If a crisis comes to a head, the RMG meets regularly to manage all health-related aspects of this crisis. In case the situation requires coordination among different sectors and administrations, a specific crisis evaluation cell is set up within the National Crisis Center.

Public warning of the population: BE-Alert

In an emergency situation, regardless of whether CBRN substances are involved or not, Belgian authorities will warn the public through the BE-Alert system. This public warning system has been operational since June 2017 following a three-year pilot project. This means that Belgium is fully compliant with Article 110 of the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), which obliges EU Member States to transmit public warnings by providers of mobile number-based interpersonal communications services to the end-users concerned as from the 21st of June 2022 onwards.

BE-Alert is the official public warning system developed on behalf of the Belgian National Crisis Center. The system rests on three main pillars:

1) Subscription-based warnings via e-mail, text message, voice call;

2) Location-based text messages (no subscription needed);

3) Common alerting protocol-supported warnings (link between BE-Alert and electronic billboards, apps, websites, … from third parties).

The main objective of BE-Alert is to quickly send a warning message to the public. In order to give the population the correct information at the right time, it is crucial that Belgian authorities:

– Are able to use BE-Alert (more than 85% of Belgian municipalities are registered);

– Learn how to use it (free monthly training sessions and testing opportunities are provided to its users);

– Set up local procedures on local warning

– Prepare possible reflex messages to be sent via BE-Alert (i.e. the first message sent to warn the public and to give directives).

These four elements facilitate the decision-making on whether or not to send a warning message. The Belgian National Crisis Center is keen to develop technical innovations in BE-Alert, while staff training is also crucial. The National Crisis Center will therefore continue to work on these two aspects in the coming years.

In the EU action plan, attention is also drawn on the rapid identification and characterization of the CBRNe agents, and efficient related sample sharing mechanisms. In that context, a renewed procedure for suspicious objects was implemented in Belgium, which clarifies the tasks and competences of the different actors in order to identify the content of suspicious objects (e.g. powder letters and closed suspicious packages) in a systematic and rapid way. Specific tasks of the disciplines and some specialized services such as FOL/DLD (Federal Orientation Laboratory and Defence laboratories) and DOVO (Belgian Bomb Squad) of Defence, Sciensano and FANC (Federal Agency of Nuclear Control) were worked out in detail in this procedure, in cooperation with the judicial authorities.

Altogether, these systems and procedures contribute to increase the resilience against CBRNe threats, setting the ground for an efficient monitoring and rapid information sharing across responders, up to the public. In this perspective, the national CBRNe Expertise Center offers an integrated platform for partners to know each other better, across sectors and with international connections, which is key to a successful cooperation process in response to such complex threats as the CBRNe incidents.

Authors: Bio

Mr. Barend Cochez, is the federal police liaison officer and operational coordinator at the Belgian CBRNe expertise Center within the Belgian National Crisis Center.

Dr. Ir. Franck Limonier, M. Sc, PhD. CBRN coordinator and POC chemical risk orientation. Dr. Franck Limonier is a project coordinator and scientist at the Department of Chemical and physical health risks, at Sciensano. Limonier coordinates CBRN expertise, including national reference centers in CBRN bacteria, toxins, GMOs-GMMs, virus, counterfeits/illegal drugs, pesticides and risk assessment. Limonier is also detached at the CBRN expertise centre, which gathers national CBRN responders (both first and second line) from different involved sectors (health, civil protection, law enforcement and defense).

Ms. Laura Demullier, is spokesperson at the Belgian National Crisis Center. With only three years of work experience at the National Crisis Center, she worked on several national emergency situations such as Covid-19, a possible terrorist threat, a cyber threat, severe thunderstorms, etc. Laura Demullier obtained her bachelor’s degree in marketing at Odisee Hogeschool and her master’s degree in Corporate Communications at the Catholic University of Leuven. Besides spokesperson at the National Crisis Center, Laura also works on partner relationships with local municipalities by giving a monthly training in crisis communication. Laura works a lot on the BE-Alert project, the national public warning system in Belgium. Among other things, she is responsible for raising awareness about BE-Alert among citizens.

Dr. Tinne Lernout, is a medical doctor (KUL, 1994) with a specialization in tropical medicine (ITM, 1997) and public health (UCL, 2001). After a few years of working as a general practitioner and humanitarian work in Africa, she gained interest in the epidemiology of infectious diseases. From 2002 to 2014, she worked as an epidemiologist in several institutions, such as the Scientific Institute of Public Health (WIV-ISP), the University of Antwerp and the French “Institut de Veille Sanitaire”. Since the end of 2014, she is working again at the WIV-ISP (Sciensano’s predecessor), where she is in charge of the coordination of the unit “Environmental related infectious diseases”. She is also one of the coordinators of the Risk Assessment Group (RAG).

Ms. An Fremout, is Section Manager Health Protection at the Belgian Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) since almost 20 years. In this position, she is responsible for defining the strategy and implementing measures to adequately protect the health of workers, patients and general population against the hazards of ionizing radiation. Since 2021, she combines this function with a part-time secondment as liaison officer at the CBRNe-center of the National Crisis Center (NCCN), where she provides her expertise in applications and risks of ionizing radiation and contributes to improving preparedness for response to major events involving a nuclear or radiological composite, whether it is an accident, incident, anomaly, failure, non-compliance with regulations or operating conditions, human error, malicious act or situation generating media attention. An obtained her master’s degree at Ghent University and her Phd in Sciences at the University of Brussels.

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