Responding to a potential biological incident requires a number of competencies, including analyzing the incident, identifying methods of dissemination, identifying biological threat agents, planning the response, implementing the planned response, evaluating progress, and terminating the incident. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA®) outlines the minimum required competencies in NFPA® 472.¹ Detailed standardized response protocols are given in ASTM E2770-10.²
When investigating a suspicious powder incident, a wide variety of sample collection products, field- deployable assays and detection systems can be used to determine if the substance contains biological material and warrants further investigation. First responders have several significant factors to consider before purchasing biological sampling and detection technologies, including the following:
Type of information obtained, usefulness and accuracy of results (performance)
Ease-of-use in the field
Total cost of ownership (e.g., hardware, consumables, and training needs), understanding that reagent cost, shelf-life, instrument maintenance, and upgrades are significant contributors
Total time from sample to answer
Weight and size.
Other information that may aid in the evaluation of a product’s effectiveness are designations given by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as part of its Support Anti-terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act of 2002 (www.safetyact.gov). The SAFETY Act, enacted as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, facilitates the development and deployment of effective anti-terrorism technologies by creating risk and litigation management systems. Products can achieve one of three levels of DHS-designated effectiveness:
Developmental Testing and Evaluation Designation (DTED) (needs more proof, but potential exists),
Designated (proven effectiveness, with confidence of repeatability), or
Certified (consistently proven effectiveness, with high confidence of enduring effectiveness).
Products having one or more of these designations or certifications are listed on the SAFETY Act website. It should be noted that the SAFETY Act website has an “Approved Technologies” tab that lists all products with any designation (DTED, Designated, and/or Certified).
¹ Annex B: Competencies for Operations Level Responders Assigned Biological Agent–Specific Tasks. In Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents; NFPA 472; National Fire Protection Association: Quincy, MA, 2013; pp. 86-91.
²Standard Guide for Operational Guidelines for Initial Response to a Suspected Biothreat Agent; ASTM E2770-10; American Society for Testing and Materials, Subcommittee E54.01: West Conshohocken, PA, 2010. DOI: 10.1520/E2770-10.