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Podcast: Spotlight on FEMA’s CBRN Office

Credit: DHS

This episode from The FEMA Podcast recognizes an organization within FEMA with a unique mission to plan for the dangerous man-made events that we hope the world may never face: the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) office. Gain a better understanding of their work through an in-depth scenario-based discussion focused around how FEMA and other federal agencies would deal with an improvised nuclear device detonation.

The FEMA Podcast: FEMA’s CBRN Office

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Speaker 1: I’m Mark Peterson and this is the FEMA Podcast.

Speaker 1: When you think about disasters, your first thoughts probably go to hurricanes or tornadoes, wildfires, or floods affecting any number of communities across the country. But for an agency that prepares for, responds to, recovers from and mitigates all disasters, we can’t stop there and we don’t. FEMA’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear office (CBRN) within FEMA’s Response Directorate was established 10 years ago with a unique mission to plan for dangerous man-made events we hope the world may never face. The team is charged with planning and preparing for a potential nuclear, biological and chemical incident while also providing technical resources, enabling the rest of the agency to carry out its mission if such a disaster occurs. On today’s podcast, we’ll learn about the CBRN mission and gain a better understanding of their work through an in-depth scenario-based discussion focused around an improvised nuclear device detonation in Anytown USA. While such a threat is likely one of the worst our nation could face, you’ll hear how the process FEMA takes and preparing for such an event is not dissimilar from the process taken to prepare for other threats.

Speaker 1: Today we’re going to talk about the CBRN office, which is the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear office at FEMA, which actually resides within the FEMA Response Directorate. And I’m joined by a group of individuals from that program. Sean Crawford, who’s the director of the office. Sean, thanks for joining in the podcast.

Speaker 2: Yeah, thanks for having us Mark.

Speaker 1: And then Tim Chrysler, who’s one of the program managers here, right?

Speaker 3: Yes, thanks.

Speaker 1: And then Len Willits. Yup. Also one of the program managers within the office. Thanks so much for joining. I think this is going to be a very interesting conversation where we’re really learning about some of the more unique offices within FEMA and some of the work that you’re doing to prepare for and potentially respond to some of the more dangerous threats that the country and the world really faces, right?

Speaker 2: Yes, that’s right.

Speaker 1: So Sean, bring us back to the start of the office. How did this office – the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear office – take shape within FEMA?

Speaker 3: So in 2006, there were some authorities that were granted and transferred down to FEMA – FEMA in the Administrator – after the Post-Katrina Reform Act. And one specifically is Tim’s program, that Domestic Emergency Support Team and also the Nuclear Incident Response Team. These two programs were mandated that FEMA actually put these programs into play and work with the agencies necessary to make these things happen. And those were just the two authorities that kind of seeded the office. And so, you know, back in 2006 when they were transferred, there wasn’t any funding. But as the office sort of evolved originally under the Tactical Incident Support Branch, then it became — we were able to get funding and actually start to kick some of these programs off.

Speaker 1: And so when you’re talking about these programs, you know, what are you primarily looking at on a day-to-day basis? The preparedness aspect, the potential for responding?

Speaker 3: So that’s a great question. I think primarily what it looks at is the Response piece of this. There’s elements of preparedness, there’s elements of planning, there’s elements of policy, training and exercises and building capability. But I think in the essence of FEMA, yes, we’re always preparing. But I think in the cases of what we’re trying to do is help ensure that state and locals are prepared for these sorts of incidents.

Speaker 1: So your office is only one piece of the larger Response Directorate, which is also looking at things like planning. And so how are you linking up with some of the planning elements, you know, say here at headquarters or even in the FEMA regions that are working closely with the states? How are you linked up as a sort of a subject matter expert? Is that fair to say?

Speaker 3: Sure.

Speaker 1: Okay. So as a subject matter expert within these particular topics or issues, how are you linking back with the planning elements?

Speaker 3: So we support the planning elements. I think a lot of the plans that we’ve helped with in terms of the improvised nuclear device planning, that was a big topic for FEMA in the first seven or eight years of this program. Helping those regions, helping those municipalities develop plans to prevent or respond to these sorts of threats. We do provide subject matter experts. We provide planning tools. We provide scenario based  information models and things like that. So we provide a lot of the backbone to these plans so that the planners can actually build a very robust plan.

Speaker 1: Cause you can’t really develop a plan without truly understanding the threat.

Speaker 3: Correct.

Speaker 1: Right. And so do you work with other federal agencies, other experts, you know, to sort of gather that expertise? Or a or do you have it in house?

Speaker 3: Oh, absolutely. I think primarily in FEMA’s basis as a coordinating agency, we have to reach out to those folks because Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, HHS (Health and Human Services) — all of these elements bring a lot of expertise to bear, specifically within the Department of Energy’s laboratory network. Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Sandia National Lab and a lot of these other elements have provided the subject matter expertise, the scientific backbone behind actually our planning efforts. So we’ve leveraged them quite a bit over the years to help inform this planning capability.

Speaker 1: Are there any particular large-scale planning efforts that you can point to that we’ve done over the last several years? That have really, I dunno, in your mind really shown the benefits of that interagency planning effort?

Speaker 3: I think most recently has been the national security emergency planning that we’ve  done, not only internal to the agency but externally as well. So looking at the possibility of a nation-state threat. And how does FEMA go back to the days of like the Civil Defense era in terms of employing communication capabilities, communication messaging, the planning efforts in terms of how state and locals warn their, you know,  constituents and actually sheltering and evacuation decisions. So this has been one of the more recent events that have occurred. And quite frankly, without the coordination and the partnerships between not only our federal and state local partners, you just wouldn’t have that sort of success when it comes to planning.

Speaker 1: That’s an example of something that, you know, right out of the headlines, you know, something that the public really is seeing in the news day-after-day. But there’s been other events that your office has gotten involved in over the years. And I’m thinking Ebola. You know, as a person who works for FEMA, it’s interesting to think about an event that’s taking place half a world away and yet our office within FEMA is working to prepare and then plan for a possibility of that kind of outbreak. How does your office look at those biological events?

Speaker 3: So we look at what’s coming out of our partners at HHS and the World Health Organization and getting information from those types of organizations. But what we really are trying to concentrate and focus on is the potential for a domestic incident. If cases actually come into the United States, we have to make sure that we’re prepared for that sort of situation. So it could potentially spread quite rapidly. So we have to be postured with our partners to deal with something like that. So it’s incumbent upon us to do that preparatory planning in the event of something possibly going wrong.

Speaker 1: These four scenarios – these four threats – chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear are so complex in the way that we as a federal government might respond to. I wonder, do they lend themselves to better planning for say natural hazards like tornadoes and floods and hurricanes? Do you work with those other planners at all?

Speaker 3: So I think we all do that sort of planning during hurricane season or you know, preparing for earthquakes. So I think we all kind of have interchangeable hats and so our thinking processes are probably the same way they would be for those types of scenarios. I know for a fact that, you know, how FEMA’s authorities have changed in terms of leaning forward for hurricanes and FEMA’s ability to lean forward and posture resources ahead of time has kind of changed how we do business in the CBRN realm too. Because certain entities that we work with, we can posture ahead of time in the event of something possibly happening. So we’re always trying to lean forward in the CBRN realm as well.

Speaker 1: So let’s say let’s talk specifically about an example like Ebola. How does your office work on that front?

Speaker 3: So I think up front we would work primarily with our Chief Medical Officer who’s in house, who is receiving the information. We’re informing our leadership. We’re working with our consequence management folks across the spectrum, from HHS to CDC to folks within DHS. And so we’re looking at, you know, not only at the protection factor of ports and entries, borders, things like that. So protection factors are up and we’re looking at how to necessarily be aware of signs of individuals possibly being infected and things like that. But also looking at how we can plan ahead of time in terms of like, in case these things happen. How do we deal with the surge on hospitals, how do we deal with logistics factors, things like that. So there’s a lot of planning factors that we can put into play that associate with day-to-day ops when it comes to hurricanes and things like that.

Speaker 4: So you brought up how unique these scenarios could be, vice the traditional threats that we face. I think there’s some thought also to say that while the threats that we may face as a result of the specific contagion or whatever it may be, the process by which we work the threats falls in line similarly to how we work disasters and earthquakes. So we gather intelligence, we gather information through a broad range of partners. You know with a hurricane, we’re getting information from NOAA and the National Hurricane Center. Very similar with this. We working with our mission partners to gather that information. Getting back to Mr. Dozer’s podcast, you know, we go through the crisis action planning process and then we devise a plan and then at a certain point in conversation with leadership, we implement that plan.

Speaker 1: All right, so maybe the best way to talk about the work that your office is really engaged in is through talking about it in the context of a scenario. So let’s pose a hypothetical. Let’s say that there is law enforcement or intelligence agencies have at least gotten wind that there might be a threat to Anytown USA of some kind of large magnitude explosion or event. And that’s what we know so far. So Tim, how would your office be picking up from there?

Speaker 4: FEMA would be notified that there’s a potential threat to the United States, in which we would begin coordinating with our partner organizations. And we have a few resources that would likely be stood up, a couple of different teams. One of the first would likely be the Consequence Coordination Management Unit, or the CMCU. So the CMCU really functions like we were speaking similarly about Josh Dozier’s crisis action planning process. So what they do is, you know, we would receive information and then start to build some planning factors. So, you know, what is the potential threat? What is the potential scope of that threat? And what would the impact be on the population? And understanding that, you know, there are idiosyncrasies of each town. So, there’s critical infrastructure. There’s unique building construction styles. All of these are different factors that would be considered and develop these plans. And then what would a response to that threat should it be realized look like? So what sort of things do we need to begin to prepare to move? What resources do we need to immediately move? What  other capabilities should we start to discuss to get into the pipeline? So we kind of take this holistic crisis action planning process and then work with our senior leaders and our elected officials to devise what the strategy would look like. And this is through the lens of what we’ve discussed as risk submission. So, you know, most folks are traditionally aware of the operational security measures. You know, folks that were former military or you know, just worked in government.

Speaker 4: We all have the OPSEC briefs. This really, we took a look at if we are to take certain actions, what would the likelihood that the hostile actor or actors be made aware of the U.S. government making preparations to prevent that from happening. So, we work with our partners to make sure that we maintain the President’s ability to take different actions. However, FEMA still has its authorities to save lives and protect infrastructure and the environment. So, a lot of this is a complicated discussion that really boils down to us preparing a plan, informing our leadership, gaining concurrence through our leadership channels and then conveying that to the elected officials.

Speaker 1: I think what you said is just kind of interesting to me that maybe we haven’t hit on just yet. That FEMA’s role is really the consequence management piece of it. So regardless of what’s happening in the enforcement world, or things with intelligence within DOD or the FBI, FEMA still has to be thinking about if something bad were to happen, how would we plan to respond to and recover from that?

Speaker 4:  Yeah, yeah. It’s exactly right. So, you know, our primary mission is to save lives. At the end of the day, regardless of whatever the threat is – if it’s a hurricane or an earthquake or a hostile actor –  we’re still going to do everything we can in order to prevent the loss of life.

Speaker 1: Okay. So let’s follow this scenario a little bit further now. So, maybe the time has elapsed and we’re getting a little bit better intel and we’re starting to find out that the possible threat might be a nuclear event similar to maybe what we see in the movies in terms of what they call a suitcase bomb or a 10 KT size device. So at this point, how is your planning changing?

Speaker 4: So as we start to get more information regarding the specific nature of the threat, the U.S. government’s going to likely look at a wide variety of different resources that can be brought to bear to identify that threat and where it may be and try to prevent the threat from being realized. But likely courses of action for FEMA would be to again go through our ability to provide options to FEMA senior leadership and to elected officials and when directed begin coordinating with state and local elected officials. And really that gets us back to very similarly how we function within the hurricane or earthquake-based models. So we established that Unified Coordination Group to establish joint priorities and then we take action with those priorities based on elected official guidance identified through the NSPM4 process.

Speaker 1: It’s part of the process of developing those options, understanding the data of available maybe capacity within hospitals. I mean are you working with other agencies?

Speaker 4: Sure. So very similar to how we function during a inbound hurricane. We bring in other partners and agencies. We partner up with them and they obviously are the subject matter experts on impacts to the health system. So obviously we’re partnering with those organizations to determine what resources would be required and what resources would be a shortfall in how we prioritize the employment of those resources. So again, it really goes back to how FEMA functions during our normal everyday mission. And I don’t want to say that a hurricane is normal. However the processes are, regardless of the threat, pretty much are the same.

Speaker 1: Okay. So let’s this scenario a little bit further. And unfortunately, you know, maybe we’ve seen one of the worst days that America could think about realized in the event of a nuclear device going off in say, Anytown USA. So there’s been this massive blast with all the cascading impacts that you might think about. Or that we don’t want to think about. Can you paint me a picture of what we’re looking at in terms of the impacts?

Speaker 3: So immediately upon detonation, you get a massive flash that blinds people for up to 10 miles. This is I think notoriously brighter than the sun by a million times and it will cause massive car wrecks. It will cause downed aircraft. It will cause anyone who is operating something to be disrupted. And so it’s a temporary blindness, but it’s enough to cause a significant impact during the initial flash. Once that initial shock wave comes, that’s where you get the impact infrastructure and basically taking down buildings, you know, destroying bridges. And any other infrastructure that’s within the blast zone. It does get filtered out quite a bit by the ground detonation aspect because half the detonation is absorbed by the earth. But then you get the urban canyon effects where streaming down roadways and things like that and you get kind of channeling of pressure.

Speaker 3: So the ground detonation is significantly different than what we used to see from the aerial detonations from the duck and cover days, the 1950s and sixties. Essentially, we almost assume that the city would be entirely annihilated based on what we saw with beginning with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the ground detonation is quite a bit different. So we looked at the models and essentially we have a very hot zone within probably a thousand feet around the detonation point. And then you have a lot of contaminated debris. And as far as I know, debris could be, you know, three stories high around the hot zone. And so as you get out further and further – a couple of miles out – then you have what’s called the light damage zone. Or the moderate damage zone, excuse me. That moderate damage zone, you have damaged buildings, damaged infrastructure, but that’s where the majority of the self-evacuation will occur. And into the light damage zone, which is further out, that’s where you still see damage to infrastructure and whatnot, but that’s where the majority of the lifesaving will take place. People actually going in. So it’s a pretty horrific zone – picture to look at. But it’s manageable if we focus on how our plans are developed based on how we respond.

Speaker 1: Now at this point, how is the CBRN office coming into play?

Speaker 4: So we discussed the Consequence Management Coordination Unit and how they perform crisis action planning and the preparatory consequence management. At that point, the CMCU would likely devolve into our traditional National Response Coordination Center, located at FEMA headquarters in the mezzanine deck. So the NRCC would begin carrying out its functions. One caveat would be the addition of the Nuclear Radiological Incident Task Force or the NRITF. That’s stood up by our office, and obviously Sean could probably give you guys some better data on what that transition process looks like and in the roles and responsibilities of the NRITF.

Speaker 3: Yeah. So when the NRCC stands up and it’s a Stafford Act declaration.

Speaker 1: And the NRCC just for, you know, listeners who don’t know that. That is FEMA’s Emergency Operation Center. That’s where all the agencies come together.

Speaker 3: That’s correct. That’s where we employ all the Emergency Support Functions and really bring all capabilities to bear. And so again, like Tim said, it’s really about FEMA doing its normal business. What the Nuc Rad Incident Task Force does is it brings together the relevant agencies that can help inform the scientific and technical decisions to help save lives. So whether it’s the radiation issues that they have to deal with in terms of whether it’s just the plume lay down or whether it’s the actual contaminants on vehicles that are being used to bring resources in or, you know, extract bodies and people out of the hot zone and moderate zone. There’s PPE issues. There’s all sorts of issues that this group can focus on. And it really helps inform decision makers on how to prioritize, whether it’s certain types of purchases or resources or you know, how we should kind of leverage what capabilities the inner agency brings to bear. And again, it’s all about lifesaving. So focusing on that as our primary goal. And I think before this all gets underway, you know, once that detonation occurs there’s going to be a huge plume. And I think that’s where IMAAC really plays in and it’s, you know…

Speaker 1: IMAAC. Give me…

Speaker 5: Yeah, so IMAAC is the Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment Center. And to touch on, so we’ve kind of played both sides of the house. We’ll work with the CMCU pre-detonation. And what we do is we can give decision makers an idea of what we’re dealing with, what the impact would be based off the assumption. So as that intelligence starts coming in and we get an idea of what we’re working with, we can go to our modelers between DOD and DOE and they’ll start developing that situational awareness tool that we can begin planning around. Once the detonation happens, if the detonation happens, IMAAC will continue to model the events on the ground and provide that information to senior leaders here at the federal level. Plus also feed that information down to state and locals. A lot of communities don’t have the modeling capabilities that we have here at the federal level, so we’re able to push that down and give them that information. So you know, it’s a big push for us to get it down to them as soon as possible so decision makers can start using that information to make lifesaving decisions.

Speaker 1: Yeah, because in the scenario that we’re talking about here, where you have a significant boom going off, you also have to realize that you could be dealing with a radiological event states away. Right? And so that planning is far more than just within the jurisdiction where the incident took place.

Speaker 3: Yeah, and I think it’s so key to have that one model available for everybody because I think what we ran into in the past, multiple models have been generated pointing wind directions in different routes. And you know, that’s created a lot of confusion for the emergency response organizations. So one model to all event partners provides just that footprint, that predicted footprint until it’s essentially characterized by ground data collected by first responders.

Speaker 1: So the impacts that are part of the detonation – they involve power loss, power outages, you know. Potential loss of agricultural areas because of the radiation. All of those other recovery issues. Now does your office stay involved into the recovery planning? I mean, have you all worked with the Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinators office and thinking through those planning aspects?

Speaker 3: So we have over the years. One of the things that we do, as I mentioned earlier with our Nuclear Incident Response Team program, it works hand in hand with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. These two entities sort of do a handoff from the response side to the recovery side. So not only are we working internally with FEMA’s recovery folks, from a planning perspective and how we could manage long-term housing to population monitoring or things like that, but with environmental management, the Environmental Protection Agency’s management of long term recovery of the environment, decontamination, creating zones that are no-go zones, things like that. So there’s a lot of things that we do into the recovery cycle and just like, and hurricanes, we’ll be there for a very long time. During this sort of scenario.

Speaker 1: FEMA’s also done extensive amount of research and planning around this type of event, but also in the preparedness space of this. And we’ve actually had a recent episode of our Prep Talks where we talk about how you might survive a major event like this. But there are some things that individuals can do to survive, assuming they’re in sort of that light, maybe on the outskirts of the moderate damage area. If you are in that kind of light area, you know, some of those steps that that individuals can take.

Speaker 3: Sure. I think the famous terms that I’ve heard thrown around during this scenario is ‘if you survive the blast’, that initial shockwave and the after effects of that blast in terms of building classes and things like that. If you survive that, you have a good chance of surviving. But it’s more or less trying to make sure that you can shelter-in-place in a stable structure. The recommendation is go inside, stay inside, stay tuned. So if you have the ability to go inside, that’s great. Go there. Your chances are surviving long term for the rest of your life are great as long as you can stay inside at least 12 to 24 hours. And if you have the ability to do that, then you’re in good shape. If you are not in the zone and you are instructed to evacuate right away then your chances are even greater. But bottom line – go inside, stay inside, stay tuned.

Speaker 1: Yeah, it’s about location and time.

Speaker 3: That’s correct.

Speaker 1: Right. So if you can be in the right location, a safe location, and you can wait it out for roughly 24 hours, you increase your chances because it’s a radiological event.

Speaker 3: Right. I don’t think a lot of people know the differences between what happens with a nuclear power plant and what happens with a nuclear bomb with the fission reaction and the degradation of the strength of the radiation versus what’s being dispersed through a nuclear power plant. I mean, the differences are, is one has gone critical and those atoms were trying to stabilize versus the others, the distribution of material that doesn’t want to stabilize and it’s going to be hot for a very long time. And that’s what we’re seeing with Fukushima and Chernobyl and those sorts of incidents. But in the case of like Nagasaki, they started rebuilding these cities within months after the detonation. So we have thriving cities now. And so what you realize is that this radiation does decay rapidly. So again, within those first 24 hours it’ll get down to a safe enough level where you can evacuate yourself or be evacuated and possibly live a long and healthy life.

Speaker 1: So we’ve talked a lot about the planning aspect of the work that your office does, but what about the tool suite that you have developed to help the emergency response community deal with these types of events?

Speaker 3: Going from planning to actual response, we have a lot of planning tools. Not only just plans, but planning tools that help inform the plans. But some of the tools that we’ve actually developed for the response side of the house, such as our Rad responder capability, Len mentioned IMAAC and Tim mentioned ROSS, which is our Radiological Operations Support Specialists. These capabilities that we’ve built really help state and locals prepare ahead of time. So in the event this happens, a tool like Rad Responder will not only have the modeling from IMAAC built into that event space, but it allows every single partner across the board. So from the smallest firefighter unit to the entire DOD enterprise that comes to support this thing, can be integrated in this tool suite to ensure that any data collected is collected into one spot. And so what this does is it provides not only the ability to rapidly characterize where the radiation is, so we can make those quick decisions on where to shelter and evacuate. But it also makes sure that we’re not collecting data and disparate databases and things like that like we saw in Fukushima, which caused a delay in informing the public on where the radiation actually was.

Speaker 3: You had news organizations that were kind of pushing massive plumes across the Pacific and basically creating a lot of scare. And that wasn’t the reality at all, but we just didn’t have the means to actually get the right information to the public. So with our systems that we are providing for free to all state and locals, this allows them to actually prepare, plan, train and exercise ahead of time and be ready when the event happens.

Speaker 1: Okay. So the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear office is celebrating 10 years of existence this year. And given the fact that our new Strategic Plan really focuses on readying the nation for catastrophic events, of which your office would have a major part of that; where do you see this office going over the next 10 years?

Speaker 3: So that’s a great question. I think where I see us is strengthening our ability to empower state locals. I think ultimately we’re trying to put ourselves out of business from the standpoint of providing capability to the state and locals. We want to prop them up as much as possible until they’re capable of doing it themselves. And so I think ultimately we’re always there as FEMA to serve state and locals. But anything we can do to get them up to a level where they’re comfortable and they can handle a situation like this, then I think we’re doing our job. So whether it’s providing the right policies, making sure all the plans are in place, making sure the tools and the operational capabilities are there and all the teams are integrated and there’s a network of capability out there that everybody can rely on, whether it’s through state-to-state agreements or whatever that may be. But also ensuring that we have our national qualification standards in place so everybody’s training and exercising at the same level and making sure that we’re continuing to do a tremendous amount of outreach through these podcasts and things like this so people know about our capabilities. So that’s where I see ourselves down the road.

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