Although the latest threat-response technology or pocket-sized wonder device is always welcome, the next big advance for emergency responders could be as simple as evaluating and updating existing capabilities and procedures. The readiness of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) response equipment and operators varies widely – from exemplary, well-organized, well-executed equipment sustainment plans, to storage rooms containing large quantities of unused equipment, the majority of which is not operational. The time has come for the emergency responder community to take practical steps to improve the readiness and capabilities of equipment they already have.
Many first responders’ CBRNE equipment sets are collections of new, old, and “we don’t really know where this came from” equipment. For many years, equipment was purchased using seemingly free-flowing grant money based on a response to a specific terror threat at the time. Occasionally, purchases were based merely on the popularity of a particular instrument. The end result is that an unacceptably high percentage of the CBRNE equipment fleet is now unusable because: (a) the equipment is broken, obsolete, in need of calibration, out of certification, functional but untested, or in need of upgrade; or (b) operators have not been trained on the equipment or have forgotten training they received years ago.
Typically, the only equipment that remains in working condition consists of instruments that are deemed critical, are used on a routine basis, or are part of a service contract. It is time to organize in order to: (a) determine what specific capabilities are required based on local threats and scenarios; (b) determine the equipment needed to support these capabilities; and (c) establish the minimum requirements for training, upkeep, and practical exercises to ensure a successful response.
Concept of Operations (ConOps)
Disaster and threat potentials are not the same in a major urban center as they are in a smaller city in the Midwest, but they both need to have the capabilities to respond. By determining the highest threat and disaster potentials, emergency managers can prioritize the requirements for their CBRNE response capabilities. The U.S. military establishes ConOps; not surprisingly, different branches and teams have completely different missions and therefore significantly different ConOps. Many state and local responders have ConOps as well, but such plans are likely in need of updating. Emergency managers should focus on a minimum viable capability and review the ConOps plan on a routine basis.
ConOps guide the procedures needed for response and sets expectations. It is important for everyone involved to be on the same page regarding the capabilities of the responder. Although it is not possible to cover every threat, a solid basis will help emergency managers and responders develop protocols to respond to different threats more quickly and efficiently.
Equipment Review – Questions & Answers
The following questions sometimes prevent managers and users from reviewing and updating their inventories:
Based on the ConOps and procedures, what equipment is currently in the inventory that offers the required capability?
Are the instruments obsolete or in need of an upgrade?
Do the instruments need only a simple calibration or repair?
Are the instruments more expensive to repair than to replace?
Will the manufacturer provide the correct information or just try to sell the newest gadget?
The answers to these questions and more are available, but often require research and working with sales people. The good news is that this is a small community with the common goal of keeping the country safe. Although not everyone may agree on the details, most of the manufacturers’ representatives are a wealth of information and can provide solid advice. Here are a few useful ideas to consider when reviewing CBRNE equipment:
Always use current equipment in the inventory first. For all but the most simple meters, it is less costly to repair and update than to replace the equipment. CBRNE manufacturers generally provide parts and repairs for equipment that other industries would have rendered obsolete more quickly.
Determine if an upgrade is available. Many of the more sophisticated instruments have a history of upgrades to keep them current. Some users may find maintaining history records annoying, but it is less costly than buying new instruments every few years.
Determine the obsolescence schedule for an instrument. All manufacturers have a final date they plan to stop supporting an instrument once it is out of production. Upgrade or even repair may not make sense if the instrument only has one year left before it can no longer be fixed.
Know what equipment is expected to be released in the near future. If the next generation from the current manufacturer or better, faster, and cheaper equipment from a different manufacturer is expected in the next year or so, it probably makes more sense to repair or upgrade the current instrument – and be ready for the next generation down the road – than buy new current-generation equipment.
Avoid being the first to buy a new type of instrument. The U.S. Department of Defense and larger emergency management organizations have programs to evaluate equipment and determine if it meets the need. Unless a group is willing to do the work to evaluate new equipment, it may be better to observe these leading organizations before spending money on something that could have more hype than substance.
Training & More Training
A CBRNE instrument is only as effective as the person operating it is. A central issue for the responder community is that many users get little more than a short operator’s course when the equipment is first purchased. In fact, many technical support requests come from users whose trainings are out of date or who have not been trained at all. As a result, many perceived equipment failures actually represent a gap in user knowledge. This is particularly true for more-complex instruments.
Recurring training is an invaluable component in a healthy program. Users develop a much deeper understanding of how to get the most from an instrument when they undergo periodic refresher training. Furthermore, advanced and application training not only boost capabilities, but also build confidence and efficiency in preventative maintenance procedures. Web-based refresher courses can help sustain responder skills without draining the budget.
Upkeep – Taking Equipment Off the Shelf
The time to discover that an instrument needs maintenance is not when the alarm sounds. The fundamental purpose of CBRNE equipment is to be able to respond in the event of an emergency.
Most CBRNE equipment cannot simply sitle on a shelf until needed. Some degree of preventative maintenance is required to ensure the instrument is functioning properly and can be relied on in the field. However, for many responders, using and maintaining CBRNE equipment is not their primary job function. Consequently, preventative maintenance often is performed only when the rest of the job duties are done, which might be irregularly or not at all.
In many cases, instrument malfunctions could be resolved without returning the instruments to a service center or to the manufacturer for repair. When bolstered by expert technical support, users who consistently perform recommended preventative maintenance procedures tend to have fewer malfunctions overall. Achieving this level of efficiency means developing a clear preventative maintenance process with realistic maintenance schedules, workflows, roles, and responsibilities.
Practice – Bringing It All Together
The emergency response community understands the importance of running scenarios and exercises to maintain capabilities. However, the problem with CBRNE instrumentation is the lack of realistic scenarios for practice – for example, it is difficult to create a vapor cloud or biological incident on a routine basis. Even in coordinated exercises, CBRNE instrumentation and users rarely face realistic challenges. The effort to conduct practical exercises – by employing practice kits that are specific to a type of CBRNE detection equipment, or creating customized practice scenarios – is worth it. For example, many different “unknown white powders” can be easily obtained from a grocery store, thus providing an endless supply of inexpensive practice samples.
The right combination of ConOps, equipment sets, training, and upkeep provide the framework of a solid, sustainable CBRNE program. Practice is what pulls it all together. Many state and local governments can accomplish these simple, practical steps without greatly expanding their budgets. Users should challenge the ConOps and equipment – with challenge training and maintenance procedures – to ensure that they are best suited for today’s threats. When performed on an annual basis, this CBRNE refresh process will build capability, confidence, and readiness. Reminder: A five-year-old instrument in the hands of a trained operator with the right procedures is better than a shiny new toy that sits on the shelf.
Craig Crume is vice president and co-owner of KD Analytical Consulting Inc. He has more than 25 years of analytical experience training and supporting analytical equipment around the world and has published or presented more than 30 papers on field analysis. Since 2003, KD Analytical has provided training, instrument maintenance, and support to the CBRNE responder community through use of a web-based maintenance management system, ReadiTrak™, and 24-hour support center.