ANSI - American National Standards Institute

Where Are Standards? State and Local Homeland Officials Deluged by Product Pitches

By David Clarke, CQ Staff Writer

Every morning when he logs onto his computer at Indiana's Counter-Terrorism and Security Council, Clifford Ong knows he'll be greeted by about a dozen e-mails peddling homeland security gear.

"You have no idea," Ong joked during a recent interview, referring to the volume of offers he has received. "I don't have time to check it all out. I don't think anyone does."

The deluge that Ong, Indiana's homeland security chief and director of its counter-terrorism council, describes is showing up everywhere. State and local homeland officials are spending more and more hours each day fielding pitches for everything from computer software for incident command centers to protective suits for emergency crews who would be summoned to battle a biological or chemical attack.

The new market for homeland security gear, fueled by the billions of dollars in grants rolling out of the U.S. Treasury, is a dizzying bazaar where product standards are scarce and carpetbaggers and charlatans lurk behind every phone call.

"It's difficult," said Philip Cabaud, director of Delaware's homeland security office.

As they navigate a sea of product brochures and "while-you-were-out" messages, officials often wish there was a municipal equivalent of Consumer Reports, a reliable guide to everything from respirators to the new generation of air raid sirens some cities like.

They want to know whether there are national equipment standards, whether an independent organization has certified a company's product against that standard, and whether other jurisdictions have used a product and found it to be effective.

The blues officials are singing may be new, but it's an old theme. State and local governments have been looking for product guidance since the late-1990's, when the notion that terrorists might turn to weapons of mass destruction first popped up on emergency managers' radar screens.


No Central Source

Back then, a number of federal agencies launched programs that state and local officials say have made the job of deciding what to buy a little bit easier.

"It's improved over the past six or seven years, especially from where we were," said Arlington County, Va., Fire Chief Edward R. Plaugher.

But there is still no central source for that information, and with homeland security programs burgeoning at all levels of government, standards and testing programs lag behind the pace at which new products enter the market.

The closest thing to a Consumer Reports for homeland equipment is a three-year-old program involving the Justice Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Office of Law Enforcement Standards (NIST-OLES).

That program produces an annual reference on new personal protective gear, and detection and communications equipment. The guide includes manufacturer statements on the products' capabilities and information on whether the equipment has been certified by an independent lab against standards set by organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association.

The reference book is useful, but the market coughs up products faster than the book can rate them, said Glenn Grove, coordinator of the hazardous response team serving Adams and Jefferson counties in Colorado.

"Because the technology is changing so quickly [the guide] almost isn't viable," he said.

Still, Grove said he leans on it because he's not interested in buying "brand spanking new" products that have no track record.

Other officials say the government's guidance is not specific enough to be useful.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police's legislative office, said an annual list of approved equipment published by the Justice Department's Interagency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability doesn't get down to the granular level of assessing the usefulness of specific products or brands.

The board was formed in 1998 as a way to get local and federal officials talking about standards and the type of equipment first responders should be using.

But "if you got a list that says you ought to have one of these detectors, how do you know which of the ten manufacturers is the best?" Pasco asked. "At this point, you're relying on sales pitches and anecdotal evidence."


Funding Disappears

Some product-specific information is starting to trickle out of the federal government.

A joint effort involving NIST-OLES, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Pentagon's Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command is setting standards for respirators and is testing different commercially available products against that standard.

In January 2002, NIOSH began publishing a list of which company's respirators met the standard.

"We will only be buying equipment that is certified under this standard," said Robert Grasso, an inspector with the Philadelphia police department's counterterrorism bureau.

But efforts to expand the program, which began in 2000, to other types of equipment are in jeopardy, said Alim Fatah, who manages the project for NIST-OLES.

The agencies have received $8 million for their work from the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2002. But they received no funding for fiscal 2003.

And while they have enough money to work through May, after that the project's future is unclear, Fatah said.

Meanwhile, other efforts are under way.

The Justice Department, for example, is funding a project by McLean, Va.-based Hicks and Associates that, among other things, will create a central database listing different products, whether government or industry standards exist for those products, and whether specific brands have been certified against those standards. The database should be available by the end of the summer.

But Jim Goss of the Oklahoma National Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, which is sponsoring the database project with the Justice Department, concedes it won't solve the basic problem that no standard exists for a lot of new devices, such as biological agent detectors.

Earlier this year, the Homeland Security Department got into the game by launching a standard-setting campaign in partnership with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

The first phase of the project, which focuses on determining what standards exist, should be completed by the end of June.

After that, ANSI and the department's Science and Technology directorate will begin figuring out what additional standards are needed.

David Clarke can be reached at dclarke@cq.com


This article was reprinted by permission from Congressional Quarterly, Inc. (www.cq.com)
Original article is written by David Clarke and first appeared in the April 24, 2003 issue of CQ Homeland Security.

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