National Guard's WMD Response Teams Gain New Capabilities
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 26, 2003 The National Guard Bureau's 32 Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams have gained new capabilities since last summer, an expert on the teams' capabilities explained today.
Two new high-tech pieces of equipment improve the teams' abilities to identify both chemical and biological substances, Army Maj. Julie Bentz said in an interview at the Pentagon. She's a science adviser to the National Guard Bureau on homeland defense issues.
Bentz and members of the 34th WMD-CST from Virginia were at the military headquarters to display their equipment and capabilities.
The two new pieces of equipment the FTIR, or Fourier Transform Infrared, and the PCR, or polymerase chain reaction - help the teams to be more efficient in their role as the "eyes forward" for state and national public health labs.
"State labs can't go to an incident site," Bentz explained. "They need to wait for stuff to come to them."
The WMD-CSTs provide an invaluable service by performing screening tests in the field. "We do an initial analysis and say, 'Hey, this looks like anthrax, for instance,'" Bentz said. "And we call back to the state public health lab, so they get all of their anthrax protocols out and start processing that."
She said giving the labs a heads-up can save hours and even days.
The two pieces of equipment are not based on new science. But modern technology is allowing that science to be more mobile than ever before.
For instance, Bentz explained, older FTIR equipment she has worked with "would take up the whole table," and so sensitive that even a door slam could knock its laser out of alignment, which sometimes took days to correct.
She said the mobile equipment is hardened, "ruggedized" and miniaturized -- now it's about the size of a large shoebox.
She explained the FTIR equipment uses an infrared laser to identify chemical molecules or rule out biological molecules in about a minute. Before this was available, lab technicians had to rely on hand-held assay tests to try to identify substances. These would rule things out but not always identify a mystery substance. The FTIR will.
"This will tell me if something is Desitin or Equal or coffee creamer," Bentz said. With the older assays, "if you had a white powder and you put it on (an assay) ticket, it would tell you it's not anthrax," she said, adding, "Well, great, then what is it?"
The other new piece of equipment, the PCR, identifies biological warfare agents -- such as anthrax, ricin, smallpox and botulinum -- and biological pathogens, including lysteria, e-coli, and salmonella, in about an hour. About the size of a carry-on suitcase, this machine is an improvement over previous technology because it can get results from smaller or more diluted samples, Bentz explained.
These capabilities help the team assist an incident commander get a handle on the situation much quicker than might otherwise be possible.
"The faster you can get the incident commander in control of the situation," Bentz said, "the quicker you can provide a sense of relief and support to the community."