Earlier this month – more specifically, on 11 September – the United States observed the ninth anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack in the nation’s history; the occasion was marked by considerable political and media commentary and academic discussions on the ability – but in some major areas of preparedness the inability – of the U.S. government to protect its citizens from the still continuing threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism. One week later, on 18 September, another key homeland security “turning point” passed with little or no discussion – namely, the ninth anniversary of the anthrax attacks on media outlets in New York City and the Washington, D.C., offices of two U.S. Democratic Senators.

An often overlooked but nonetheless major event in the chaotic establishment of the still somewhat cumbersome homeland-security mechanism that has already changed many lives and careers, the 2001 anthrax attacks must be revisited again and again until several important questions are answered. Possibly the most important of those questions is: “How clean is clean?”

After a combined effort – by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and several other federal agencies – the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) facilities in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., as well as the Hart Senate Office Building were closed, decontaminated, and eventually reopened for public use. The reoccupation of the contaminated facilities was not, though, an everyday business-as-usual process. Private-sector as well as government scientists and senior federal officials have started to realize that safety and cleanliness do not seem to be enough in themselves to change public perceptions. The debate over “How clean is clean?” is therefore one that must first be analyzed in a pre-event context so that local and national policies can focus greater attention on various ways to mitigate and reduce public reluctance to reoccupy decontaminated areas.

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its first draft of the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF). This planning guidance document is DHS’s answer – at least part of it – to state and local agencies’ continuing need for a better coordinated approach to one of the most important aspects of the emergency management process. In the development and promulgation of the draft NDRF, DHS left interpretation and implementation of long-term recovery policies at the state and local level somewhat open-ended. Emergency managers and many other state and local officials still have numerous questions they need answered as they begin to integrate the NDRF into their own emergency planning. It seems likely that most if not all of those answers may eventually come from several Homeland Security Inter-Agency Working Groups (IAWGs).

Although many communities throughout the nation will be focusing primarily on long-term recovery planning (from natural disasters, for the most part), the high-risk urban areas encompassed by DHS’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) will also be considering and developing the recovery processes used in the wake of various “manmade” incidents and events – which are usually but not always linked to chemical, biological, radiological, and/or nuclear (CBRN) threats. The National Academies of Sciences noted in a 2003 report – Reopening Public Facilities Following a Biological Attack – that “decision making on the safe reoccupation of a building will be a simpler process if adequate contingency planning takes place before an attack [emphasis added].” Thus, the necessity of coming to a concrete determination of “How clean is clean?” becomes an important aspect of NDRF implementation.

There are three critical elements at the core of any policy developed around and involving CBRN threats and actual incidents: (1) the physical science related to CBRN threat remediation; (2) the resulting legislation developed from and involving the physical-science findings; and (3) public perceptions of, and trust in, both the science findings and the legislation enacted. With each element building on one another, the DHS IAWGs must take the initiative in standardizing the federal government’s CBRN remediation criteria. With participation by representatives of the Department of Defense (DOD), DHS, EPA, and CDC – as well as state and local emergency-management officials from the Washington, D.C., and Seattle, Washington, UASI offices – leaders of the Interagency Biological Restoration Demonstration (IBRD) conducted several “Simulation Experiments” (SIMEXs) in July 2010 to develop a comprehensive software tool that homeland-security officials can use to develop more effective plans for the remediation operations and activities that will be required in the recovery operations mandated following any attack involving a persistent biological agent.

The IBRD is a program under the DHS Science and Technology (DHS S&T) directorate, which is charged with generating homeland security capabilities for the return of chemical/biological-contaminated areas to normal condition by funding the development of remedial strategies and technologies. In addition to developing the software tool mentioned above, the July 2010 SIMEXs – which started 14 days after a hypothetical anthrax attack – tested the interim DHS Consequence Management guidelines, which build on the official 2009 DHS Planning Guidance for Recovery Following Biological Incidents. S&T officials hope that the lessons learned from the SIMEXs will have a significant impact on the long-term planning for recovery and remediation operations and therefore provide at least part of the answer to the still all-important question of  “How clean is clean?”

In large part because of the complexities involved in emergency management planning, only slight progress has been made to date – more than nine years after the 2001 anthrax attacks – in developing and promulgating the policies needed to reassure the American people that CBRN-remediated facilities are in fact safe to reoccupy. As with any other planning initiative, though, “exercising” the NDRF and complementary CBRN recovery guidelines will be critical to ensure that DHS is developing and promoting planning practices that are both effective and achievable.

The development of draft guidance for general disaster recovery – and, more specifically, for the recovery from biological-specific incidents – seems to be clear evidence that DHS officials do understand the threat.

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Jordan Nelms

Jordan Nelms is the planning section chief on FEMA’s Region II Incident Management Assistance Team based in New York City. Prior to joining FEMA, Jordan served as the planning branch manager at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, and previously worked as a contractor with Witt Associates supporting homeland security and emergency management programs at all levels of government and the private sector. He received a BA in political science/security studies from East Carolina University and pursued graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, the University of South Florida, and University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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