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Back to Archives | Back to August 2009 Contents 

Department of Homeland Security Explosives Standards Working Group: Standardizing the U.S. Counterexplosives Effort

By Joseph Kunkle, Office of Security Technology, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C.; and Chairman, DHS Explosives Standards Working Group

rotecting the United States from the threat of evolving, multidimensional global terrorism is the central challenge for the U.S. government now and in the years to come. Nearly a decade into the 21st century, the country has witnessed terrorists deploying shock tactics to strike financial nerve centers and iconic symbols of global military power. The cities of London and Madrid have experienced horrific attacks from an undetected enemy recruited from within. Twenty-four–hour news channels broadcast breaking news of terrorist attacks and warnings of future attacks. The Internet streams shocking video footage of carnage caused by suicide bombers and gunmen systematically swarming targets to murder innocent victims. And all too often, newspapers report the effects of vehicle bombs damaging buildings, destroying critical infrastructure, and tearing nations apart from within.

Almost eight years into the global war on terrorism, the United States has learned how resilient and relentless its global enemies can be. Even after their financial networks have been dismantled, terrorists are still able to operate globally by decentralizing and linking with international criminal organizations and gangs to raise money and acquire weapons. The sobering reality is that this transformation has produced smaller cells of radicalized individuals detached from any known terrorist group and financing system, increasing the challenge for intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials to identify, track, and disrupt these groups’ shadowy operations.

Although there has not been another major terrorist attack against the United States since September 11, 2001, it would be naive to assume that there will not be one in the future. Indeed, to prevent such an event, governments at all levels across the country have sharply stepped up their counterterrorism efforts. Despite the successes of these ongoing programs, inevitable difficulties have arisen, as with any sudden increase in efforts. Such issues include duplication of efforts; lack of coordination and interoperability; insufficient or inappropriate training; and insufficient flow of information among the various levels of government, the first responder community, and the private sector. The objective of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Explosives Standards Working Group (ESWG) is to resolve these and other issues with standards that harmonize homeland security strategies, sharpen operational effectiveness and maximize efficiency, and incorporate sound practices from stakeholders across the law enforcement spectrum, including international partners. Additionally, the ESWG strives to create a unified national framework that promotes shared focuses and accountability for detecting, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from future terrorist attacks against the United States.

Forum for Information Exchange

As codified in the law, homeland security is a responsibility shared by federal, state, and local governments; the private sector; and the citizenry, built on partnerships. The ESWG provides a forum for communication and information exchange across DHS components and between other federal agencies, the U.S. first responder community, the private sector, and other stakeholders associated with the nation’s counterexplosives domain—meaning any explosives program or activity involving deterrence, detection, prevention, protection, mitigation, response, improvised explosive device (IED) defeat procedures and technologies, technology development, and test and evaluation functions.

The ESWG works for a consensus on standards for each counterexplosives subject area. Once it is determined that a particular subject area is in need of standards, the group seeks out existing standards that meet the requirements. If an appropriate published standard is located (within the United States or internationally), it will be chosen for adoption as a DHS national standard. In some cases, no such standard exists; the ESWG then works with end users, key stakeholders, and standards development organizations to develop new standards that meet specific mission needs.

Creation of National Standards

In an effort to combat terrorist use of explosives in the United States, the ESWG seeks to ensure that all types of first responders and government agencies at all levels can depend on the equipment deployed by DHS or purchased with DHS preparedness grant money. In addition, the group endeavors to ensure that security countermeasures are effective, reliable, and appropriate for the homeland security mission space.

The best way to achieve these two objectives is to develop and test equipment and countermeasures to DHS national standards. With national standards and associated evaluations and conformity assessment programs, those who acquire and use counterexplosives technology will have a consistent and verifiable means to assess the performance of equipment, in addition to a concept of operations and an avenue through which to work closer with manufacturers and outside agencies to foster the creation of safer, improved, and more interoperable commercially developed technologies.

DHS national explosives subject area standards define best practices and minimum performance requirements by studying industry practices, operational tactics, equipment specifications, and winning strategies of world-class organizations. To ensure a defensible process in the standards adoption process, the ESWG identifies and consults with a wide range of subject matter experts and stakeholders. This process incorporates best-practice insights to identify gaps, develop capabilities, and provide national standards that lead to program excellence.

Additional Efforts

Additional undertakings of the DHS ESWG are as follows:

  • Gather, analyze, and maintain existing information on counterexplosives domain standards and conformity assessment activities, including standards for detection, mitigation, and explosives attack prevention efforts (such as equipment, training, exercises, and specialized response capabilities and procedures) defined collectively as explosives countermeasures

  • Identify national standards needs, requirements, and expectations for all activities under explosives countermeasure programs as well as test and evaluation activities

  • Participate in nongovernmental national and international standards bodies to promote standards that meet DHS and public sector needs

  • Partner with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency Grant Programs Directorate to identify standards gaps in DHS’s Authorized Equipment List, used by state and local customers

  • Provide a forum for collaboration and information exchange with federal agencies; state, local, and tribal governments; and nongovernment entities on explosives program–related standards and conformity assessment measures with the following objectives:

    • Promote interoperability
    • Keep the counterexplosives community abreast of new technologies

    • Expedite access to information on newindustry developments, new market directions, and market trends

    • Develop and promote best practices from both manufactures and end users

  • Work with national and international standards development bodies, other federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector to create a forum for analyzing, validating, and developing clear and unambiguous requirements and performance objectives for homeland security (explosives countermeasures) equipment and operating procedures

  • Facilitate the development of test methods and comprehensive protocols for certification of compliance with DHS national standards, allowing state and local officials to make well-informed procurement decisions

  • Participate in the development of standardization of performance metrics and quality measures for first responder explosives countermeasure (that is, detection, screening, and defeat) equipment and concept of operational procedures for explosives incidents

  • Promote the use of adopted standards as DHS national standards for explosives countermeasure programs and related conformity assessment initiatives for the DHS mission space and state and local government agencies

  • Advise the under secretary for science and technology on counterexplosives domain standards issues that affect the homeland security–related responsibilities of DHS, other federal agencies, and state and local governments

Need for State, Local, and Tribal Participation

To accomplish the ESWG’s goals and build on the progress it has made in the counterexplosives domain, the group needs to tap into the best resources it can find: first responders. The ESWG requests the active participation and ingenuity of state, local, and tribal agencies to break down barriers and eliminate obstacles that cause members of the counterexplosives community to operate independently of each other with pockets of excellence. State, local, and tribal networking abilities can work to form a unified, seamless counterexplosives community with shared focuses and accountability in homeland security. Furthermore, the skill sets, expertise, and experience in the ESWG’s program areas these agencies possess can assist in building a culture of preparedness with a single set of guiding principles that are both flexible and capable of handling a broad range of elements in the counterexplosives domain.

With state, local, and tribal participation and commitment to the ESWG’s mission, the group will be able to improve the capabilities and resiliency of the U.S. first responder community through training, equipment, exercises, and planning standards. Only a collaborative effort can change the status quo of disconnected operations. By involving all agencies, departments, and organizations and by using cohesive, sound practices, the ESWG can protect local communities and emergency responders with equipment and operational best practices standards that both meet operational needs and provide responsibility and accountability for homeland security.

The ESWG is not meant to add another layer of bureaucracy that impedes progress or hampers work in the field. This working group is made up of operators actively involved in advancing security and leading the way forward with national standards that unite and strengthen national capabilities to combat terrorists’ use of explosives in the United States.

Joining Up

The group’s seven program areas are as follows:

  • Explosives detection

  • Explosives mitigation and hardening

  • Test and evaluation

  • Explosives incident management

  • Bomb squad equipment, operations, and training

  • First responder equipment, operations, and training

  • Tactical team operations and training

Joining the ESWG is simple. Agency representatives should decide in which program area(s) their expertise lies and contact the author by e-mail at Responses will contain contact information for the appropriate program lead(s).

The cost to agencies participating in the ESWG is zero. Although the group’s meetings are held in Washington, D.C., call-in capabilities are available for those who cannot travel, and most of the group’s communications and work are conducted through e-mail. The ESWG hopes agencies will take advantage of this unique opportunity and join their colleagues throughout the United States in building a first responder community that is unified and equally prepared to face the challenges of a new century. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 8, August 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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