Subcommittee meets to discuss future of BioWatch

The Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications held a joint hearing on Thursday to discuss the future of the BioWatch biosurveillance program.

In 2003, the BioWatch program was the first nationally deployed system meant to detect an aerosol attack with anthrax or other bioterrorism agents. The system, currently in its second generation, is being tested for a third generation that would be more portable and reduce detection time.

Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), the the chairman of the subcommittee, expressed concern about acquiring the new technology.

"One of the many important functions of Congress is to ensure we avoid and eliminate wasteful spending," Bilirakis said. "This becomes even more vital in the difficult fiscal times we are currently facing. And yet I am concerned that, without corrective action, we may be heading down a path at DHS with the Gen-3 procurement that we've been down before. And with a potential life cycle cost of $5.8 billion, among the most costly of DHS' acquisitions, we cannot afford for it to fail."

Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies, raised similar concerns about the costs of the program.

Alexander Garza, the assistant secretary for Health Affairs and the chief medical officer for the Department of Homeland Security, expressed the need for an improved system to more rapidly deploy medical countermeasures in case of an attack. He said that the acquisition of Gen-3 will include a cost-benefit analysis and all required documents to comply with acquisition guidelines.

Equally supportive of the program and its oversight were Frances Phillips, the deputy secretary for Public Health Services at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Rafael Borras, the under secretary for Management for the Department of Homeland Security.

"While there is still much work to do, the department has made significant strides to improve acquisition and investment management for the department's portfolio of major programs," Borras said. "I believe we are making progress to shifting the paradigm so investment decisions are more empirically driven and there is qualified technical expertise to support program managers at each phase of the life cycle."

William Jenkins, the director of the Homeland Security and Justice Issues segment of the Government Accountability Office, said that until a system is effectively implemented to determine the benefits and risks of Gen-3, decision makers will have a tough time determining if the system is worth the cost.

"The strategy (for Gen-3) does not facilitate analysis or provide tools to assess the risks to be addressed - in the context of enterprise-wide goals - by such science and technology approaches or the value they should offer the enterprise relative to their costs," Jenkins said. "Without such a framework and tool set, it remains difficult for decision makers - in both the executive and legislative branches - to help ensure that their resource allocation decisions contribute to a coherent enterprise-wide approach."