Faced with reauthorization, CWMD office chief says partnerships and focus on chemical threats are key

The head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Office called the sometimes-beleaguered office an “unsung gem” while praising the senators’ reauthorization bill that “requires that we consult with our peers within government, outside of government, academia, industry on a regular basis to understand what they see.

DHS Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Gary Rasicot, who led the office from October 2019 to July 2020 and again from January 2021, told senators that “we have made great strides in maturing this critical organization over the past three years.” years” and he is “convinced that CWMD is the right office at the right time to deal with the threats that are emerging in this mission space”.

“While we still have work to do, I was pleased to see the improvement in employee engagement scores in the latest results from the federal CWMD Employee Viewpoint Survey, which are now above the DHS average,” he said Tuesday during a Homeland Security and Government Affairs Senate meeting. Committee hearing.

President Gary Peters (D-Mich.) noted that the Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction “faced serious setbacks after its inception, including unstable leadership, low morale and high staff turnover, among other challenges,” but said he remained “optimistic that upcoming structural changes within the office and increased coordination between law enforcement and state, local, tribal, and territorial partners will significantly enhance the ability of the office to meet these challenges head-on.

In late June, Peters and rank member Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security Offices Act to reauthorize the CWMD office, which is set to expire next year. , and authorizing the new Office of Health Security was announced this week by DHS with the goal of “unifying the department’s medical, employee health and safety, and public health functions under one organization.” The legislation would also require the CWMD to submit a report on the office’s strategy to Congress every four years.

“We also look forward to continuing our close working relationships with our colleagues in the Office of Health Security, as they provide expert medical and public health guidance to all of our efforts,” Rasicot added. “Once again, we are grateful to the committee for the bill to reauthorize the CWMD. Given the potentially devastating nature of CBRN events, reauthorization is essential to ensure the continuity of critical programs while supporting frontline operators and local communities.

“Mr. Rasicot, as someone who works on these threats every day, I’d like to know what keeps you up at night,” Peters said. “Let the committee know. And why the existence of a CWMD office so important to counter these threats?”

Rasicot cited the need to “recognize chemical threats and then how to take immediate action to avoid injury”, and acknowledging that “countering WMD requires specialized skills, training and equipment”.

“You can’t get this overnight. You have to invest in it, you have to stay up to date. The threat is continually evolving,” he said. “The department needs an office whose sole purpose is to maintain that capability within the department and to share that knowledge and capability with our national and local first responders. I believe the CWMD is the right office to do this. I believe we have the expertise, we have the skills, we have the capacity and we have the knowledge, and we are improving a lot.

Rasicot says the office has “no recommended changes” to the reauthorization legislation, “and I think that’s really starting to strengthen the office,” particularly by clarifying roles and responsibilities in the areas of chemical threats and biological. “It also helps that it’s permanent. It is very difficult to go out and do all this partnership with our federal family, as well as involvement in the locals, without this permanence in the office.

He also praised the emphasis on collaboration and the inclusion of an advisory council in the bill “because we did this on an ad hoc basis, and I think a lot of it is based on my personality, but I think we need to institutionalize this stakeholder awareness and make it a requirement.

The Director of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office, Tina Sherman, said that “the accountability measures and mechanisms that are in place in the bill that has been introduced are … quite positive steps forward and can have a big impact in ensuring that the CWMD subset has taken and will. take in the future will be aligned with its mission and will ensure, among other things, that engagement with state and local partners continues.

DHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Pritesh Gandhi is responsible for the new Office of Health Security. “Apparently every critical issue that DHS has engaged in over the past two years has had this close connection between public health and medicine,” he told senators. “Yet our responses, while solid and robust in many ways, were ad hoc because we were working in a system that was not designed for the types of threats we have faced over the past two years.”

“The benefit of having faced these threats and dealing with them head-on is that there are a multitude of lessons learned,” he said. “And the hope is to institutionalize those lessons learned so that we can, first, pioneer the best workforce health and safety programs that we need; second, to focus on how we do standardization coordination, oversight and accountability across the department; third, making sure that we centralize medical and public health safety data and public health data; and finally, continuing what has been a large-scale engagement with our state and local partners. Our ability to do all of this, to engage and have a strong playing field at the local level to provide the required coordination and standardization, and to lead policy, relies on having a strong central office that can speak with one voice.

Gandhi said his office is “very focused on ensuring that we expand the clinical experts in our office who can provide advice to the CWMD and work hand-in-hand with our partners across the federal government to address this response.” .

“Our goal here is to provide this advice not only to our federal partners, if and when one of these attacks occurs, but also to our state and local partners,” he added. “And we participate in exercises across the country, readiness exercises, again, with our partners, and then with those of the federal family.”