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Operation Vigilant Sample: First Responder Training for Suspicious Powders

From NIST Tech Beat: August 2, 2011

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Contact: Jennifer Huergo
(301) 975-6343

A team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working with the U.S. National Guard on a coordinated effort to train emergency first responders in the delicate and potentially critical task of securing reliable samples of suspected biothreats. The project, dubbed “Operation Vigilant Sample,” seeks to coordinate training programs for first responders at the state, local and federal levels based on newly developed sample collection protocols.

NIST serves as an objective third party to evaluate how well the standards are being integrated into practice, and to develop quantitative metrics to evaluate training exercises, according to Jayne Morrow, an environmental engineer at NIST who led the development of the standard, which was released last year.*

“The aim of the operation is to provide a training lane that can help standardize the interface between initial local, state and federal responders to make sure everyone gets what they need from a collected sample of suspicious material, including providing a solid chain of custody,” says Morrow. “Our goal here at NIST is to help integrate standards and training so that everyone from first responders to investigators knows they can rely on that sample.”

The National Guard has 57 Civil Support Teams (CSTs) around the country that serve as the first wave of federal response to domestic chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents. The teams assess suspected attacks, advise civilian responders, and facilitate the arrival of additional state and federal military forces. Operation Vigilant Sample will help the CSTs by providing consistent training among the first responders with whom they work.

In February, 2011, NIST participated in a 72-hour Operation Vigilant Sample exercise at the army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. “After leading development of the ASTM standards relied on in the exercises,” explains Morrow, “we are now assisting the community with integration by evaluating how well coordinated and effective were the communications as the operation unfolded, and to see what additional standards are still needed.”

“The Operation Vigilant Sample exercises have allowed the various state and federal responders an opportunity to develop their standard operating procedures in a collaborative manner,” explains Capt. Bryon Marsh of the National Guard Bureau. “As national guidance such as the ASTM standards become available to responders, it is important that we have the opportunity to incorporate them as a community and standardize our response efforts.”

In addition to these exercises and establishing training and standards, NIST is working with its partners at various agencies to enhance coordination between first responders, public health laboratories, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory response network, Federal Bureau of Investigation weapons of mass destruction coordinators, and the National Guard’s CSTs.

“Our participation in Operation Vigilant Sample is part of a larger effort to support the training of first responders, and it’s a chance to demonstrate the effectiveness of the ASTM standards,” says Morrow. “This is all about response planning, getting together before something happens and seeing that standards are integrated into the community. Field exercises are one critical element to successful integration and a well-coordinated response.”

* See the Nov. 24, 2010, NIST Tech Beat article “New Guidance Issued for First Responders Collecting Suspected Biothreat Agents” at www.nist.gov/public_affairs/tech-beat/tb20101124.cfm#powders