Ensuring Coast Guard Can ‘Strike’ Fast During HAZMAT Incidents

Getting quickly to the scene of a hazardous material (HAZMAT) incident is critical whether it’s an oil spill or release of chemical, biological, or radiological materials.

During a HAZMAT response, the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Strike Force (NSF), comprised of five specialized units of first responders, are ready to rapidly deploy to the scene properly equipped to protect the public and environment. These units are unique, highly-trained teams deployable to anywhere in the country and around the world.  

In 2021, the Coast Guard National Strike Force Coordination Center, the parent unit to the five strike teams, asked the Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Chemical Security Analysis Center (CSAC) to evaluate the unit’s existing chemical-detection technologies. CSAC reviewed and analyzed the NSF’s equipment and technologies ensuring a wide range detection of hazardous chemicals and toxins.

“The Coast Guard has a vital mission to facilitate preparedness for and response to hazardous substance incidents to protect public health and the environment,” said Helen Mearns, deputy director of CSAC. “CSAC is honored to partner with the National Strike Force to help fulfill its mission and thus strengthen the overall security of the United States.”

The NSF is the only Coast Guard resource that can quickly deploy, assess, and mitigate large-scale HAZMAT incidents. The team possesses a unique skillset and specialized equipment to detect and identify suspected hazardous substances like toxic industrial chemicals or chemical warfare agents. For example, during a chemical incident such as a chlorine leak, an NSF strike team can deploy upon request of a Federal On Scene Coordinator to initially establish a safe perimeter using plume trajectory models and conduct perimeter air monitoring to ensure the safety of the public. Once a perimeter is established, strike team personnel in HAZMAT suits can enter the area to secure the source of the release. For incidents with unknown chemicals, the NSF is specially trained and equipped with a wide array of capabilities to detect and identify hazards.

To deal efficiently with accidental or intentional releases of hazardous materials, the NSF periodically evaluates their specialized equipment and confirms it is working as intended.

“We provided the Coast Guard with a comprehensive gap assessment of their current chemical-detection capabilities,” said Jessica Cox, CSAC program manager and lead chemist. “The relationship that the Coast Guard National Strike Force and CSAC have developed will help improve support for the National Strike Force’s critical ongoing evaluation needs and upcoming training exercises.”                                      

As part of its initial request, the NSF asked CSAC to evaluate a number of chemical and biological detection technologies or kits. CSAC assessed them against 136 select chemicals and eight biological threats (like toxins and microorganisms) and categorized them into different groups.

To start the evaluation process, Dr. Carol Brevett, a CSAC principal scientist, conducted a detailed analysis of hazardous chemicals that are part of the S&T Chemical Threat Characterization (CTC) program. She then created a list of specific threat chemicals, pertinent to NSF’s mission, based on prevalence, risk assessment, and requested chemicals of interest (e.g., chlorine, ammonia and pesticides).

“The CTC Toxic Chemicals of Concern List consists of 184 chemicals that encompass chemical warfare agents, pharmaceutical-based agents, and toxic industrial chemicals, which span a range of solid, liquid and gaseous materials. The substances used for this analysis were a subset of the CTC toxic chemicals of concern list that are pertinent to the Coast Guard NSF mission space,” said Brevett.

In the next step, CSAC chemist Dr. Jerry Cabalo cross-referenced this list of threat chemicals and the concentration levels at which they become dangerous to human life and health against the reported performance of each of the NSF’s detection technologies. He then produced an analysis of the technical challenges of the unit’s equipment and technologies.

“For example, one technology used by the National Strike Force required users to know beforehand if a threat chemical might be present and whether tubes with an indicator for that specific chemical are available,” said Cabalo. “Knowing beforehand is a limitation that can be overcome if, for example, first responders know that a chemical plant using methyl isocyanate is leaking. Then they can select the appropriate tube. But if the toxic substance is unknown, selection of the right tubes would be a gamble.”

The CSAC analysis revealed both the capabilities and the limitations of various technologies used by the NSF.

“We reported the results in a quick stoplight matrix chart to rapidly evaluate which threats they could detect below levels of immediate danger to life and/or health, and which threats they couldn’t,” said Cabalo.

“This information allows the National Strike Force to focus resources on filling in the gaps and enhancing detection in the areas they are lacking to improve their response capabilities,” added Cox.

Even after this analysis and evaluation was completed, S&T CSAC continues to provide support to meet the future needs of the NSF, including the improvement and optimization of emerging technologies and detection equipment.

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