The nation’s police departments and fire departments have had standards of various types incorporated into their training and operating guidelines for many years. But it is only recently that a set of practices has been formulated and agreed upon by a large and often overlooked group of other preparedness professionals – hazmat (hazardous materials) and EMS (emergency medical services) technicians, primarily – that will serve as a national standard for all to follow in their responses to emergencies of various sizes and varying degrees of complexity. That standard is formally known as Designation: E 2458-06, a shorthand way of describing what are officially called “Standard Practices for Bulk Sample Collection and Swab Sample Collection of Visible Powders Suspected of Being Biological Agents from Nonporous Surfaces.” The E-2458 standard, developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), was the first nationally validated set of guidelines of its type developed for the purpose of ensuring that all first responders in the emergency-services sector trained in sample collection would be able to perform their duties in exactly the same way their counterparts anywhere else in the country were carrying out the same important task. The fact that all preparedness professionals in the same specialized line of work will be trained at the same level and using the same techniques in responding to the same type of incident anywhere in the country is a major accomplishment in itself – as most common-sense achievements tend to be. It also will be a major factor in the nation’s ability to deal with a credible terrorist threat, particularly one involving the use of biological agents, and/or other potentially lethal incidents threatening the lives of Americans anywhere in the U.S. homeland. The fact that the nation’s first responders will be better prepared to handle such an event, in fact, will be a significant deterrent to would-be evildoers. Much of the credit for the standardization of the sampling process goes to ASTM Committee E54, which has jurisdiction over homeland-security applications developed for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A multi-agency team by design, the committee specifically includes representatives from federal, state, and local offices and agencies across the board. Logical Guidelines Yield Substantive Results The E-2458 standard sets forth a previously tested protocol that is required to be used when responders are confronted with an unknown powdered substance. After an initial assessment – to rule out explosive, radiological, or chemical hazards – shows that the substance might reasonably be suspected to be a biological threat, the emergency responder would follow the practices mandated for sample collection, as outlined in the E-2458 guidelines. The protocol set forth in those guidelines is intended to minimize exposure risks not only to the responders themselves but to other citizens as well who might be in or near the incident site, while also ensuring that the samples collected have not been compromised by improper collection practices. The samples are then processed for further testing through biochemical and forensic analysis by appropriate public-health and law-enforcement agencies. There are two stages required in the process established for using this standard. The first stage covers the bulk collection and packaging of suspicious powder(s) from a solid, nonporous surface. In the second stage, swab samples of residual powder from the surface are collected for immediate on-site tests and biological screening. The reason for that order of progression is to minimize the possibility that the powder might be dispersed, which is more likely in a bulk sample collection. As with any standard established for mandatory use, there are specific ways to carry out the collection tasks that must be followed in order to properly obtain a sample. Local, state, and other agencies following previously established sample collection procedures should compare those procedures with the national standard established under ASTM E 2458 and make whatever revisions are necessary not only for the local standards to conform with the national standard but also to ensure that proper techniques are used at all times and that the documentation needed also conforms to what is required under ASTM E 2458. The next step at all levels should be frequent and appropriate training and exercises, using the nationally mandated techniques approved by DHS. Further information on the ASTM E 2458 sample collection procedures and techniques, as well as the documentation requirements, is available at www.astm.org/COMMIT/E54.htm.
Jason Pastuch is a firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the Cherry Hill Fire Department in Cherry Hill, N.J., who has 18 years of experience in the fire-service industry and 13 years of experience in the handling of hazardous materials. He deployed to New Orleans during Operation L.E.A.D. to assist in the massive fire/hazmat cleanup operations required after that city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He also served on the Liaison Committee and as a speaker during the U.S. Law/Ready.Gov Conference held later in Washington, D.C. A longtime member of the International Association of Firefighters, Pastuch received his Associate in Science Criminal Justice Law- Enforcement degree from Camden County College in Blackwood, N.J.