HazMat/CBRNE from a civil perspective


By SA James Peaco, Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator at FBI, USA.

In today’s world civilian authorities, such as police, fire, public health, and emergency services are faced with the threat of Chemical Biological Radiological or Nuclear (CBRN) weapon, also referred to as weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). CBRN terrorism is one of the most terrifying and complex challenges faced by civilian authorities. The range of CBRN threats is broad, making prevention, detection, and mitigation of CBRN materials difficult. 

The impact of a CBRN attack can be catastrophic and long lasting. The social and psychological effects far exceed those of conventional weapons.  In today’s world civilian authorities must be prepared to face the unthinkable threat of a CBRN attack on a civilian population. 

Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons encompass a broad range of threats and areas of technical expertise.  The science of chemicals is very different from the science of biological agents and toxins as both are very different from the science of radiological and nuclear materials.  Therefore, a wide range of equipment and expertise is needed to counter CBRN threats and civilian authorities need plans, protocols, and capabilities to address each of these modalities. 

Historically WMDs have fallen into one of two tracks. The highly technical and scientifically complex tract and available materials tract. The highly technical track has resulted in military grade CBRN weapons, which are undoubtable the most efficient.  More commonly available materials such as toxic industrial chemicals, drugs like fentanyl, available biological toxins, and commercial radiation sources pose a significant theat.  Civilian authorities must also deal with the fact that some routinely used chemicals and agents, such as chlorine, can be used as CBRN weapons. Civilian authorities must be prepared to combat both military grade CBRN weapons and improvised CBRN weapons, amid normal operations.

The psychological impact of a CBRN attack, or even the threat of one, can be significant. Most civilian populations have very limited training and understanding about the various threat agents. In addition, most civilians have little, if any, ability to detect and protect themselves from CBRN threats.  People have a natural fear of things that they don’t understand and can’t see.  Civilian populations depend on their governments to protect them from CBRN threats.  Actual, or even the threatened, use of CBRN weapons can quickly instill fear in a civilian population. That fear can quickly lead to large scale panic and a loss of confidence in their government, which are the primary goals of terrorism. 

A threat actor that intends to conduct a CBRN attack has a wide range of lucrative civilian targets. Population centers, special events, government institutions, economic and financial centers, critical infrastructure, cultural significant sights, and individuals are all potential targets of CBRN terrorism. In other words, civilian authorities must be prepared to protect everything and everywhere.

Preventing a CBRN attack is the obvious goal. Significant resources are needed to identify and quickly act upon indicators of a CBRN threat. Protocols for sharing information are essential. Civilian authorities should routinely engage with intelligence agencies to both provide and receive potential threat information. Subject matter experts (SME’s) are essential when assessing potential CBRN threats and suspicious circumstances. SMEs can come from the government, academia, and/or industry as appropriate.  

The probability may be low, but because the consequences of a CBRN attack are potentially so high, civilian authorities need to employ methods of early detection. Radiation detection equipment, chemical detectors, and biological detection systems are valuable however the protocols for rapid assessment and response are just as important.  One of the biggest challenges is cost and complacency. Since the likelihood of a CBRN attack is low, jurisdictions find it difficult to justify the cost of the necessary teams and equipment.

In order to protect against CBRN terrorism civilian authorities must be capable of rapidly detecting and mitigating CBRN agents. Rapid response to a CBRN threats is critical. Civilian authorities must be able quickly integrate field screening, definitive testing, mitigation, investigations, and recovery into the overall response. The priorities of any incident are always life safety, containment, and investigations. Often these priorities can be addressed simultaneously. When done well this leads to a more timely overall recovery to an incident. 

One of the biggest challenges in conducting a CBRN attack is the acquisition of CBRN materials. Civilian authorities are challenged with the monitoring and management of commonly used and/or available materials such a chlorine, fentanyl’s, and commercial radiation sources. 

When a CBRN threat emerges early identification of the threat agent is essential. This is often done through field screening. Field screening can include detection equipment and/or assessment of the known facts. Field screening results guide decontamination, isolation or quarantine, containment, and other mitigation decisions. It is important that civilian authorities respond competently in the early stages of a CBRN incident in order to save lives, contain the incident, and instill confidence in the population that they serve.

Initial reports guide decisions but are often not complete or correct, especially with respect to CBRN threats. Definitive testing and assessments are necessary for the restoration of normal operations and investigations. Definitive testing and assessments often require coordination with laboratories and specialized assets. The investigation into who committed a CBRN attack is a key component in restoring confidence that the public is safe and that a future attack can be prevented. 

Accurate and consistent messaging to the public regarding a CBRN attack or threat is essential for life-safety and maintaining confidence in all levels of government. Civilian authorities must provide timely messaging about the threat and how citizens should react. When preparing messaging, civilian authorities must balance public safety, investigative sensitivities, and sometimes classified information.  Messaging needs to be uniform among agencies. The best approach is early coordination between agencies and early messaging. 

No single civilian agency has the ability to fully address CBRN terrorism. Inter-agency cooperation and joint operations is vital.  In a large scale CBRN attack federal government and/or military assets will likely be needed. It is imperative that a response by local civilian authorities lay a solid foundation for a national level or military response. 

In the Los Angeles area CBRN threats, responses, and preventative operations, such as special events, include law, fire, public health, and FBI WMD assets. This joint response allows for rapid and comprehensive assessment and response to CBRN threat. This joint response also builds a solid foundation if national level or military assets are needed. A “cradle to grave” philosophy is used in which federal partners get involved early and local partners stay involved until the conclusion of the incident and investigation.  Routine joint trainings and the “cradle to grave” approach to all WMD/HazMat related incidents, threats and preventative operations helps to develop a well-practiced and prepared team. 

For civilian authorities’ recovery from a CBRN attack goes beyond the technical mitigation and clean up. Public perception and confidence in the government is a critical factor. Civilian authorities must maintain the trust and confidence of the population they serve in order to effectively convince the people that they and affected area are safe.  

Civilian authorities have the task of protecting populations that are not trained or equipped to protect themselves from a CBRN attack. To do these civilian authorities must have plans and protocols to address even the most unthinkable of CBRN threats.  Civilian authorities need to be prepared to rapidly respond to a CBRN threat and integrate with national level and/or military assets.  Preparation and interagency coordination are the key to success in preventing, detecting, and responding to a CBRN threats.

About the Author:

Special Agent James W. Peaco III graduated from US Naval Academy with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Political Science and served in US Marine Corps as an officer. He joined the FBI in 1998 and his assignments included violent crimes/criminal enterprise squad that targeted street gangs in Los Angeles. SA Peaco also served as an operator on the FBI Los Angeles Special Weapons and tactics Team from 1999-2012. 

SA Peaco was certified as a FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Coordinator in 2012 and is currently the FBI Los Angeles Division WMD Coordinator. He is responsible for WMD threat assessments, outreach and liaison programs that prevent and provide early detection against WMD terrorism, and preparedness for WMD terrorism and terrorism threats. SA Peaco also focuses on rapid threat assessments, interagency operations, and Radiological Nuclear Search Operations. He has also participated in several National Level Special Events and exercises and has provided WMD training to international partners in the Balkans, Africa and Asia.

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