Americans were stunned and horrified by the terrible events that took place on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. This was a gut check moment that shattered the sense of security the nation had, for so long, taken for granted. The sense of fear and dread was further heightened when the anthrax mail attacks began just a week later. Children and adolescents of the time witnessed the government’s efforts to secure the country against future threats and bring justice to those responsible. This generation is now entering the workforce with a post- 9/11 perspective, shaped by the knowledge that the unthinkable can happen. Those entering careers in emergency management, disaster response, and biosecurity do so with eyes wide open and the knowledge that they must be prepared for what former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for WMD Policy at NATO, Guy Roberts, refers to as the “unknown unknowns”. The use of social media is allowing terrorists to reach across continents and global travel is bringing emerging infectious diseases to our doorstep. The NCT CBRNe USA 2016 conference which took place from the 31st of May to the 2nd of June in Arlington, Virginia, brought together leaders with the experience, knowledge, and foresight to share their expertise on the evolving threats we face and the innovative technologies that will be used by the next generation to mitigate them.
New and Evolving Threats
In the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, America’s worst mass shooting occurred, reminding us once again that terrorism has evolved in a way that makes it increasingly difficult to prevent. While it is unclear how much the shooter’s actions were inspired by hate and bigotry and how much by an allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist organization, it is clear that American citizens are increasingly vulnerable to attacks. During the NCT CBRNe USA conference, Brigadier General William King, Commander of the U.S. Army 20th CBRNE Command, pointed out that the war is no longer “force on force”, emphasizing that civilians are now the target.
Guy Roberts highlighted some particularly terrifying technologies that are now available and, in the wrong hands, extremely dangerous. The video he played during his presentation showing pilots of Jetman Dubai jetpacks flying in formation with a United Arab Emirates commercial airliner was enough to cause your heart to sink straight into your stomach. While an unlikely scenario, the potential impact of this technology in the hands of a suicide bomber is truly sobering. Drones are yet another recreational technology that poses tremendous security risks. Drones are becoming more and more common and can be purchased by anyone. We have already seen multiple instances of drones being flown onto the White House grounds. It would not be a stretch to imagine someone attaching explosives to drones and flying them into high-profile targets.
Edward Gabriel, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, made sure to include biological agents in his presentation at NCT CBRNe USA, noting that the United States responded to the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa. With rapid globalization and the ease of air travel we can no longer afford to ignore emerging infectious diseases outside of our borders. Fear ran rampant when a man returned to the United States from Liberia infected with Ebola in 2014. However, it’s Ebola, or another category A or B pathogen, being weaponized and deliberately spread using equipment simply purchased on Amazon that keeps Dr. Ron Hann of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) up at night. Indeed, this should keep us all up at night.
The NCT CBRNe USA conference was not all doom and gloom. There were some tremendous examples of technological innovation designed to assist us in preventing and responding more quickly to CBRNe events. Air Technique’s EBS Real-Time Biodetection Sensor uses light scattering and polarization to classify threat agents, providing actionable intelligence in a fraction of the time that would otherwise be required. The StemRad 360 Gamma belt is a piece of equipment that was developed to protect astronauts from space radiation, but has also been recognized as a tool that could save the lives of countless first responders during a radiological disaster. Technology like this will be crucial in our efforts to prepare for, and get ahead of, future CBRNe events.
In conclusion, the NCT CBRNe USA 2016 conference brought together those working tirelessly to protect the citizens of the United States and acted as a platform for the exchange of information and ideas. To continue to improve our readiness, the agencies and organizations responsible for the nation’s safety must communicate with each other and be willing to ask for help. Social media is allowing terrorists to recruit from our own neighborhoods, Zika virus is closing in, and we do not know what other threats may be on the horizon. For post-9/11 professionals entering the emergency management, disaster response, and biosecurity field there is much to be concerned about. However, the conference presenters and exhibitors proved that we looking forward and effectively preparing for any threat we may face in the future.