The Department of Homeland Security Office focused on the development and acquisition of technologies for detecting biological and radiological threats is taking a closer look at the needs of local health officials and first responders as it moves forward with plans for a next-generation biodetection system, the head of the office said on Wednesday.
The more deliberate outreach to stakeholders, including the DHS Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate, for help with technology, is part of “taking a step back” as the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office tees up its program for Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21), Gary Rasicot, acting assistant secretary for CWMD Office, said at a conference.
The more robust outreach effort follows the departure in October of the previous assistant secretary, James McDonnell, and complaints from local public health officials regarding DHS’ plans for BD21. In October, local officials testifying at a House hearing said the plans for BD21 are based on outdated military technology that would be costly and difficult for local governments and authorities to manage and respond to (Defense Daily, Oct. 17, 2019).
At the same hearing, which was hosted by the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery, Asha George, an executive with the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, told members that requirements for BD21 haven’t been established and that the department hadn’t reached out to stakeholders for their input.
Rasicot’s remarks came the same day he received a letter from the chairwoman of the House science panel urging him to slow down the BD21 program and follow appropriate acquisition procedures, ensure the technological maturity of the program, and improve stakeholder outreach.
“BD21 cannot succeed without a sound technological foundation and the support of key stakeholders in the public health and first responder communities who will be responsible for operating within the framework of the program,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said in the Dec. 11 letter. She also warned that failure to address the committee’s concerns could jeopardize the program.
Rasicot, at the conference, said he understands the concerns of the public health officials, saying “in some ways they’re genuine,” but also faulting his own office for not doing a better job in communicating.
“I think we also have got to do a good job of advertising what we’re doing,” he said at an event on weapons of mass destruction hosted by 1105 Media and the non-profit security contractor Noblis. “I think we sort of got maybe a message out there that we have the solution and we’re implementing. We’re not there. We are still in the analysis of alternatives mode. We’re very early in the acquisition process and we are looking forward to the input from out stakeholders and what they need.”
Rasicot said his office needs to get better “connected to our stakeholders, primarily the first responders and see what they really need.” He pointed out in one of his first trips he made after taking over for McDonnell was to New York City to meet with police and public health officials to “hear what they need.”
New York, he pointed out, is a major city for existing BioWatch program, which BD21 aims to replace, and the Securing the Cities program, which provides equipment, training and expertise to help localities monitor and respond to potential radiological and nuclear threats.
BioWatch is deployed to over 30 major cities and urban areas in the U.S. The system consists of aerosol sample collectors spread across various outdoor and indoor locations. Samples are collected daily and analyzed in local laboratories, but the time between the actual release of a potential biological threat substance and its detection through analysis can take a day or more, delaying the decision-making and actions necessary to respond more effectively.
BD21, which Rasicot said is a priority for his office, is meant to provide “quicker, better, faster, more accurate detection.”
The CWMD Office is “strongly partnering” with DHS S&T “in every one of our efforts, including BD21,” Rasicot told Defense Daily after his keynote speech, mentioning that he met with William Bryan, acting under secretary for S&T, on Tuesday.
Rasicot said that partnering with S&T allows him to better leverage his limited resources.
S&T in the past has done work for the former Office of Health Affairs, one of the legacy offices that was brought together with the former Domestic Nuclear Detection Office last year to create the CWMD Office.
The Dec. 11 letter sent by Johnson to Rasicot also mentions a bipartisan letter her committee sent to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Nov. 22 asking to join in a review of BD21 requested by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in August.
In the Science Committee’s 12-page Nov. 22 letter to the GAO, Democratic and Republican leaders said their own bipartisan review of BD21 revealed concerns that the CWMD Office may be “cutting procedural corners” and moving too fast. It also said the office didn’t follow standard acquisition guidelines by not performing a capability gap analysis.
The letter said that the technologies planned for BD21 may not be able to detect certain dangerous biological agents and the program is counting on the use of an algorithm that doesn’t exist yet and will be difficult to develop.