Department of Homeland Security's Garza says first response guidelines will be released in "weeks"

Dr. Alexander Garza, the assistant secretary of health affairs and chief medical officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, testified last week before the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications about federal guidelines for first responders in the event of a bioattack.

Garza said that the Office of Health Affairs has four strategic goals coinciding with the strategic goals of the Department of Homeland Security, including building national resilience against health incidents such as biological or chemical attacks.

"One of OHA's primary responsibilities is to mitigate the consequences of biological accidents through early detection," Garza said. "The BioWatch Program Identifies the release of an aerosolized biological agent and provides an alert to public health officials, allowing for a faster response and the rapid provision of medical countermeasures."

OHA, Garza said, has been working for several years on guidance for protecting first responders in a large scale anthrax attack.

"The document [on guidance] is at almost 99 percent [finished]," Garza said in response to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications. "We've had the final vetting of comments on the adjudication of certain issues. We've been working with a whole smattering of federal agencies - HHS, OSHA, EPA - everyone seems to be on board now.

"I fully anticipate that this report will be done [within a few weeks]. I know that it is on schedule to go to a domestic resiliency group for adjudication. I anticipate it being completed very shortly."

According to Bilirakis, in addition to guidance for first responders, the OHA's $40 million BioWatch program is testing the next-generation Gen-3 detection technology that, if successful, could reduce detection time for the current 12 to 36 hours to as little as four to six hours. Gen-3 would also provide detects that function reliably indoors.

Bilirakis, however, questioned the feasibility of Gen-3 and the OHA's ability to deploy it on time and within budget.

"Any new BioWatch program - particularly one that will cost $5.7 billion - must prove that it provides a substantial improvement over current technologies, and that communities in which it will be deployed are fully on board with using it," Bilirakis said.