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Marsh Seeks to Capitalize on Bio-Threat Technology

Captain Bryon Marsh had a vision to capitalize on emerging bio-threat detection technology when he enrolled at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

Marsh, science officer with the Georgia National Guard’s 4th Civil Support Team, was motivated to enroll at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security to help craft his idea of a Civil Support Joint Readiness Training Center.

Such a center would support training and education for responders to CBRNE events. The center would allow the military to train and exercise with a state’s public health laboratory, their FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator and local first responders.

"One of the reasons I wanted to come here (CHDS) is that I wanted an opportunity to pull these concepts together in an academic environment so I would be better able to market the idea to policy makers," Marsh said.

Think back to 2001: Anthrax-laced mail targeting elected officials and television networks killed five people. Across the nation, false reports flooded emergency phone lines whenever any powdery substance was noticed out of place.

Since then, a dedicated laboratory response network has been established to run genetic testing on potentially dangerous biological agents and the FBI has established a department focusing on chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear-explosive threats. And, technology exists for onsite detection of suspected biological and chemical threats, cutting the time it takes to use a traditional laboratory.

Marsh envisions a system in which first-responders are trained in point-of-sample analytical testing of suspicious substances. Laboratories would still play a confirmation role, but responders would be empowered to conduct immediate testing which would govern the response.

"This is a triage system," Marsh said. "The advances in technology allow first responders to collect and analyze on site. That helps determine whether the response should speed up or slow down."

The center would train and certify users of mobile detection technology and also follow-up with proficiency tests to ensure that equipment is used properly. With homeland security funding dwindling, continued training is crucial to maintaining the investment in equipment.

While field testing technology exists, national standards on collection methods and testing are lacking. Moves are afoot to standardize this work.

Marsh and the 4th Civil Support Division conducted a weeklong training in February 2011 along with the Georgia Division of Public Health and Cobb-Douglas County Public Health as well as representatives from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the American Standards for Technology and Materials (ASTM), the FBI, and the Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infection Diseases (USAMRIID). The agencies tested standards for the collection, transport, analysis and communication of results of suspicious substances.

Since then, Marsh has served as a subject-matter expert for an Interagency Working Group comprising representation from varied federal departments. The group issued a report titled "A Framework for a Biothreat Field Response Mission Capability" outlining the components of a system for field testing and training. Subsequently, DHS and the Commerce Department issued "A National Strategy for CBRNE Standards" in May 2011.

The next step for Marsh is formulating a questionnaire and synthesizing the data regarding training and operations for first responders.

"The advances in technology have allowed first responders to be equipped to do this," he said. "That changes the entire concept for everybody."