How to Understand the Biological Weapons Threat: Part 3

By Kevin Ryan

September 2001 presented a new threat that had to be learned from the ground up. Very little knowledge in the emergency response world focused on these types of threats. New techniques, equipment, methods and training had to be developed to respond to these “white powders,” We are seeing the same evolution with the battery problems responders are currently experiencing.

The Baltimore City Fire Department was no different. The white powder protocol developed has morphed into the current suspicious substance procedure. The procedure has been adapted over the past 21 years to reflect suspicious packages as well as being applied to fentanyl responses.

Also Read: How to Understand the Biological Weapons Threat: Part 1

Changing the name to the suspicious substance procedure may be one of the more significant changes. Using the title white powder promoted tunnel vision. Responders always expected to see a white powder when using the procedure. In reality, the product could be tinted brown or have several other characteristics.

Also Read: How to Understand the Biological Weapons Threat: Part 2

The procedure has proven itself on multiple occasions with positive results when applied correctly. Law enforcement agencies in the city (including federal agencies) are familiar with the procedure, knowing it produces viable and actionable results. The procedure consists of four parts.


The first is the investigation checklist. The checklist gives the incident commander a general strategic approach to handle the incident. Basic hazmat strategy is a big part of the checklist. It involves establishing unified command, establishing control zones and using the risk assessment questionnaire to categorize the incident and interview exposed or contaminated victims.


The second is the risk assessment questionnaire. This allows for a thorough size up of the incident. Basic incident information can be documented including date, incident commander, incident number and member completing it. A section for location determines the occupancy and what kind of business or use it is.

Use the questionnaire to interview the person who received the package or envelope as a way to assess it. These questions will determine the who, what, when and where of the package or envelope. The most important section is the exposure or interview of exposed victims. The best information can be gained by speaking directly to anyone who opened or saw the package before it was isolated.


Third is the entry procedure. The heart of a suspicious substance investigation comes from the entry procedure. Sampling the product and assessing the threat and incident credibility are major factors in determining the course of action. BCFD samples for public safety only. We will not sample for evidence or any aspect of law enforcement investigation. Our primary goal is to protect the public. The mission stops once we determine if it’s a threat or not.

The two major components are the PPE and detection equipment needed. We use CBRN-rated suits, including masks and cartridges. SCBA is not used unless a specific circumstance arises that requires it. The entry procedure is intended for solids, liquids and settled products. Unopened packages or items suspected as explosives must be screened and cleared by a bomb squad before our investigation continues.

Equipment used for testing can be as basic as a protein check such as the HazChem kit or as advanced as a Razor PCR 10 pouch. Product testing is considered destructive or non-destructive depending on the method used. The entry team must leave enough product not destroyed for a lab to evaluate the sample. A method to bag the sample and decontaminate the bag for transport is described as well.


The fourth is the state lab screening form. Once a sample is collected, the completed screening form must accompany the sample when it is sent to the state lab. The form simply allows documentation of what was done by the entry team and who transported the sample to the lab. Samples sent to the lab must have a highly credible threat verified by our procedure.

Also Read: Three Takeaways from Two Suspicious Materials Hazmat Calls

Again, the process has evolved in the past 21 years. The last class I took on emerging threats looked at pharmaceutical-based agents or toxins such as ricin or abrin. Our procedure can be adapted to these by using IR, Raman and adding a fentanyl-specific test kit; we have been using opioid-screening kits.

There is much more room for expansion in our process as new threats emerge. The one common thread that allows this procedure to be effective is knowing our partner agencies. Maintaining relationships with law enforcement agencies and the state lab allow us to make this effective. Our partner agencies know exactly what we are capable of when we deal with this type of incident.

Part IV will highlight a BCFD response where outside-the-box thinking using our procedure gave us the answers we needed.

About the author

Kevin Ryan is a member of the Baltimore City Fire Department Hazmat Operations Office. He is a 30-year veteran of the fire service with 25 of those years as a hazmat responder; he is currently a Level 3 instructor. He has previously written the Buzz Blog for Hazmat Nation. He can be reached at [email protected] for additional information.

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