Rep. Bilirakis grills experts on lack of first responder protections

The chairman of the subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications questioned witnesses on Tuesday during a subcommittee hearing centered on medical countermeasures.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) asked James Polk and Edward Gabriel why the guidelines for protecting first responders have yet to advance past draft form after approximately 30 months. Polk is the principal deputy assistant secretary and deputy chief medical officer of the Office of Health Affairs. Gabriel is the principal deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"I'm happy to report that Ed and I have worked diligently with our counterparts at DHS and HHS on this guidance to get it moving forward and it was approved by the (Domestic Readiness Group) earlier this month," Polk said. "My last understanding is that it's going through the signature cycle, getting all the interagency logos applied to it and it will very soon, within the coming weeks, go through the interagency vetting process then be released."

Polk said that interagency comments could potentially slow the guidelines from reaching first responders, but he estimated that the document would be available no later than mid-May. In response to why the document has taken so long to reach completion, Polk said that it was due to an effort to make sure the guidelines were up to date with the latest treatments for bioterrorism agents like anthrax.

"The issue with anything like this (guidance) is that it can't be perfect," Gabriel said. "When you try to look at guidance like this, you want to keep it as general for the people that are really in the field to understand and to use appropriately. Sometimes when you look at document development like this, you get a lot of technical sort of concepts put into something that needs to be institutionalized at the field level."