The Department of Homeland Security’s plans to replace the its current biothreat warning system with an automated detection program are unsound and communications with state and local authorities that must develop response plans based on the new technology have been insufficient, local public health officials testified before a House panel on Thursday.

Officials said that military biodetection technologies being considered for the new program, Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21), are outdated and generate false alarm rates that would be costly and challenging for local governments and authorities to respond to.

The BD21 program is aimed at replacing the 16-year-old BioWatch system, which consists of air sample collectors place in indoor and outdoor locations in more than 30 major U.S. urban areas that require manual retrieval followed by analysis in a local or regional laboratory, a process that means it could take about a day-and-a-half between release of harmful biological agent and detection. The programs are managed by the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office.

“BioWatch and the proposed BD21 systems fail to meet even minimum standards that any other test deployed in a public health laboratory would need to meet,” Jennifer Rakeman, assistant commissioner and laboratory director for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said in her written statement to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery.

“While we support advancing the current BioWatch program to take advantage of modern biothreat detection technology, we have concerns about the deployment of this new program and the options under evaluation of BD21,” Rakeman said. “Instruments currently deployed for military use, which have generated regular false alarms, are being considered in NYC and throughout the country.”

New York City’s requirements are different from the military’s, she said, and a having to respond to false positive alarms “could have profound economic consequences and will have associated morbidity and mortality.”

Asha George, executive director for the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense and a Doctor of Public Health, said in her written testimony that DHS hasn’t established requirements for BD21 or “sought comprehensive input from relevant stakeholders” and has left state, local, tribal and territorial officials “out of the loop.”

George said the commission recommends that DHS test better DoD biodetection technology and that the CWMD Office leverage the DHS Science and Technology Directorate and the Department of Energy’s national laboratories for work on these systems and technologies.

In a statement, the CWMD Office, “DHS CWMD is committed to protecting the American people from biological threats by using the best technology available and collaborating with partners across the homeland security enterprise.  We are still in the early stages of BioDetection 21, a multi-year acquisition effort.  We plan to develop requirements based on collected environmental data and input from first responders, public health officials, and other partners.”

Umair Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health in Texas, also said that state and local partners need more information from the federal government about future biodetection program plans.

“Any new technology must make public health more effective and not make it more difficult for these officials to make necessary decisions when time is of the essence,” he stated in his written remarks.

Shah also said that automated biodetection technology can’t subtract from the need for decision-making by public health officials.

The CWMD Office in September issued a Request for Information seeking industry comments on BD21, which DHS projects will dramatically reduce the time from detection to response. The RFI was issued under the guidance of James McDonnell, who resigned as director of the CWMD Office this month.