Report Prompts Changes in Pentagon's Biohazard Response
By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 24, 2006 Pentagon officials released a report today assessing the Defense Department's reaction to three suspected anthrax incidents in March 2005 and concluding that the department followed correct procedures, but needs to improve notification and coordination.
The report by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, focuses on mailroom incidents at the Pentagon, the Skyline Towers in Fairfax County, Va., and the Defense Intelligence Agency at Bolling Air Force Base, D.C.
On March 14, 2005, an independent laboratory notified the Pentagon mail screening contractor that samples collected March 10 from filters in the Remote Delivery Facility tested positive for anthrax. Due to a failure to follow standard protocol, this mail had already been released for delivery, said Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness.
In response to the Pentagon incident, mail delivered to the Skyline Towers complex in Fairfax County was collected and temporarily placed in a bio-cabinet. The volume of mail restricted airflow to the cabinet and triggered an airflow alarm, which was incorrectly interpreted as an indication of anthrax, Embrey said.
In an unrelated incident, on March 18, 2005, a hazardous substance testing system indicated the presence of anthrax in a Defense Intelligence Agency mail room at Bolling Air Force Base.
In all three incidents, further testing indicated anthrax was not present, Embrey said.
The report was a chance for DoD officials to assess their biohazard response procedures and identify areas that needed improvement, said Michael Donley, director of administration and management for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
"As we know, there's really no better tool for learning than having to go through an actual event like this," Donley said. "We want Congress and local and state partners to be aware of what we have done since these incidents last year."
The RAND report found that the Pentagon's Remote Delivery Facility provided the necessary separation between suspected threats and the general building population, Donley said. The facility was built for the purpose of isolation, he said, and its effectiveness was proven by the anthrax incident.
The report also found that DoD made all the necessary notifications and connections with other agencies, and as a result, decisions were made to treat the public health issues and the possible affected population immediately, Donley said. Following the incidents, DoD held conference calls with the Department of Homeland Security, the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Disease Control, the FBI, and local authorities, he said.
The RAND report also points out that DoD did well in the public health response to the incidents, Embrey said. DoD spent a considerable amount of energy identifying, screening, treating and offering counseling to those who could have been potentially exposed, she said, and by March 17, 2005, the DiLorenzo Tricare Health Clinic had tested more than 800 people.
"Once we were notified that anthrax was detected in the Pentagon mail sample, the first concern was the health and safety of those who may have been exposed," she said.
The most significant area the RAND report identifies as needing improvement is that of the speed and coordination of notification procedures, Donley said.
"Especially in the Washington area, where there are multiple agency and interagency partners, we need to work harder at the process by which all the necessary folks get contacted in the appropriate timeliness," he said.
To address this deficiency, the department is drafting a DoD instruction that will include guidelines on notification procedures and incident command, he said. The incident command concept will include operations, logistics, public affairs and communications, he said. Biological incidents are very hard to manage, he said, because the initial results often require further testing and verification, but there is still a need to notify other agencies of a possible attack.
To correct the problem of the Pentagon mail being released before test results came back, DoD has put in place stricter guidelines on the handling of contaminated mail, Donley said. Three separate organizations are now required to be present and have a certified negative result for the release of mail, he said.
The mail containment facilities at the Pentagon have been completely rebuilt to be more effective at containing threats, Donley said. A second containment facility has also been built so unaffected mail can still be processed while quarantine is in effect, he said.
To improve public health response, earlier notifications are now going to be made to the Department of Health and Human Services, Arlington County public health and other agencies when there is a confirmed positive, or ambiguous result that warrants further tests, Embrey said.
To test threat response procedures, the Pentagon and the Pentagon Force Protection Agency have sponsored exercises with state and local officials for the last four years, Donley said. This year's exercise, Gallant Fox, will take place in May and will include a simulated biological attack on the Pentagon, he said.