by Dan Shipp, president, International Safety Equipment Association
With all the information on equipment, training, planning and funding competing for their attention, how do responders sort out what they need, and find out where to get it?
When they rank their critical needs, responders put personal protection at the top of the list. It's simple, really. Responders know that the latest gizmos for gas or radiation detection, or interactive communications, are worthless unless there are live people to put them to use. And they understand that they will need technologies for personal protection that they don't have. Firefighters understand what they need to wear to enter a burning building. Hazmat teams understand how to protect themselves when responding to a chemical spill. Nurses understand the precautions necessary when dealing with certain illnesses. But potential acts of terrorism introduce many unknowns into this environment, and the responders know they may need protection against these unknowns.
There's a wealth of information being assembled by Project Responder, the brainchild of the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. This is a national think tank for counterterrorism, established in 1999 to honor the victims of the bombing at the Murrah Federal Building, and funded by Congress. The institute has made emergency responders a top priority of its research and policy analysis, and is funding Project Responder to improve local, state and Federal responders' capabilities to mitigate the effects of terrorist acts.
In a series of workshops with responders and technologists, Project Responder is trying to assess the needs of responders and technologies available to meet those needs. Where there are gaps between the two, the project hopes that the information it generates will help fill them.
The Project Responder interim report, Emergency Responders' Needs, Goals and Priorities (available on the Web at www.mipt.org) recognizes a hierarchy of need, as assessed by the responder community, placing personal protection at the top of the list of 12 terrorism response objectives. It further subdivides personal protection into five capabilities: body protection from all hazards, respiratory protection where oxygen is available (i.e. air purifying) and respiratory protection where oxygen is not available (SCBA), responder decontamination and escape respiratory protection.
The good news for responders is that PPE is available to meet all these needs, even if it falls short of what responders consider ideal. But responders feel their functional capability for personal protection falls far short of meeting their needs.
Responders are looking for protective clothing that is lightweight, easy to don and doff, relatively comfortable in varying environmental conditions, waterproof and durable. They want it to provide dexterity, and be easy to decontaminate. Most importantly, it should be integrated into the day-to-day response gear, so that responders will not have to maintain separate ensembles for high-risk, low-probability hazards. After all, the hazmat team is probably going to have hundreds of routine responses before a single terrorist emergency. Variable visibility was also identified as an issue. While we're used to thinking in terms of high visibility for safety, there are some responders – SWAT teams, for example – for whom low visibility is essential.
For respiratory protection, the responders are putting a high priority on air-purifying respirators. They want long-term protection – filters that will last for a 12-hour shift and protect against all hazards, with little or no breathing resistance, full field vision, integrated communications and end of service life indicators. They want them to be lightweight, comfortable and, of course, affordable. For SCBAs, weight and duration are the big issues – they want units under 10 pounds that provide breathing air for 4 hours under stress.
These are tall orders, and the responders realize that. But it gives valuable guidance to planners and suppliers who are working on technologies to meet these needs.
Once the products are developed, how do we inform the responders about what's available, what's going to work for them, and what can they buy with available grant funding? There's good news here, too. Project Responder is putting together something called the Responder Knowledge Base (RKB). Initially, this was going to be a kind of repository for all the knowledge that was being accumulated on responder needs. The technologists thought responders would value information on where the research was heading. Instead, responders asked "What's out there today?" And the RKB spun into a different orbit, focusing on what's available now, and how the available product base fits in with the responders' needs. The planners realized this could be a valuable one-stop information tool for responders, linking products, standards and standardized equipment lists, test results, information on availability of grant funding and much more.
The RKB has been designed to give emergency responders a single source for integrated information on current equipment, including organizing information such as the National Terrorism Response Objectives and the IAB's Standardized Equipment List. Put into English, it hopes to answer these questions:
- What's out there? What are the categories in the Standardized Equipment List and the Authorized Equipment List, and what products are available to fit those categories?
- Has it been tested? Testing (and certification to applicable standards) is critical in identifying reliable products.
- To what standard? Where there are standards, the RKB will provide descriptive information and links.
- What training is needed to use it? Training information will come from suppliers and training centers.
- How do I pay for it? Applicable grant programs will be identified, and links provided for further details and on-line applications.
- Who else is using it? Responders will be able to obtain off-line opinions from their peers on products they've used, with the RKB facilitating the connection.
Responders will be able to search the knowledge base by these criteria, and extensive links in all categories will make it easy to find information. The developers are working toward an October 2003 roll-out. According to project manager Don Hewitt of the Terrorism Research Center, the first phase will include mostly personal protective equipment, but nowhere near the full range of data for which the RKB is designed. He is looking for help from manufacturers, standards organizations, test labs, subject matter experts and users to help populate the knowledge base. ISEA members have been sending product information during the design and evaluation phase, formatted to the RKB requirements, so that the developers can test their system using real data. A pre-production demo site is on the Web to allow comments from the responder community. You can e-mail [email protected] for a user ID and password.
When the Responder Knowledge Base goes live later this year, responders will be only a few mouse clicks away from a trusted information source, designed specifically to meet their needs.
Arlington, Va.-based ISEA represents some 80 manufacturers of safety and personal protective equipment. Established in 1933, ISEA supports its members in manufacturing and marketing the highest-quality products to protect the safety and health of individuals who may be exposed to hazardous and potentially harmful environments while working on the job or at home.