Ever since envelopes containing anthrax bacteria were mailed to Congressional and media offices in 2001 causing several deaths, many first responder departments have worked to improve their ability to quickly detect toxic biological agents. To help them make informed decisions about which biological agent detection devices best meet their needs, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently developed a two-volume guide for the emergency response community. The guide, produced for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), does not make recommendations. It provides the community with ways to compare and contrast commercially available biological detection equipment.
Volume 1 of the Guide for the Selection of Biological Agent Detection Equipment for Emergency First Responders presents an historical overview of the use of biological agents starting with the Assyrians who used ergot fungi to poison wells as early as 600 B.C. It also describes various bacterial agents, symptoms, effects and treatment as well as the challenges of biological agent detection. The guide includes a market survey of 143 biological agent detection products and commercially available detectors known to the authors as of March 2005. The guide also displays pictures of specific devices that use the technology being discussed.
To help first responders decide on appropriate equipment, the guide cites 19 performance parameters or selection factors, including sensitivity, specificity, start-up and response times, ease-of-use, alarm capability, power requirements, skill level, cost, durability and portability. An appendix lists questions that could assist emergency first responders when selecting the biological agent detection equipment. Volume II includes detailed detection equipment data sheets.
DHS intends to maintain and update the guide as new information on biological detection equipment becomes available. The Guide for the Selection of Biological Agent Detection Equipment for Emergency First Responders is available online.