Trending Topics
lepm 1.png

Emerging and contemporary threats: How prepared is law enforcement for a CBRN attack?

The essential role of local police in early detection, containment and forensic investigation of CBRN threats

By Lieutenant Jimmy Pearce

Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats have been a concern not only on the battlefield but at a local level here at home for decades. Having lived through 9/11, we are familiar with the risk magnitude of an attack and the fact that attackers are only limited in method by their imagination.

The threat landscape is constantly changing and future threats will not necessarily be linear. We recognize this in the potential for weaponization of pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs), such as fentanyl, as well as improved access to biological weapons through genome editing, engineered biology, genetic sequencing and other rapidly changing biotechnologies. [1] The threat of an attack using traditional and “off the shelf” methods also persists, including the use of chemical and biological agents against civilian populations. What are the implications for local law enforcement?

While the FBI will ultimately be the lead investigative agency, as directed in Presidential Directive 39, [2] first responders, including local law enforcement, will be responsible for the initial response and investigative actions. This will include life-saving measures, actions to contain and identify potential CBRN agents, crime scene and evidence preservation, and the initiation of the investigation. These critical tasks to be completed in the immediate aftermath of an attack are often the most significant and have implications that last long after the attack.

lepm 2.png

Law enforcement officers from around the country travel to the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama, to participate in some of the most realistic CBRN training scenarios available in the United States. In this photo, law enforcement officers participate in a full-scale exercise in which they are tasked with clearing a mock subway train and station for a terrorism suspect actively releasing a weaponized WMD agent. Officers must effectively manage adversarial threats while simultaneously identifying and managing non-threat individuals. Officers must also maintain safety perimeters around the scenario area and conduct technical decontamination.

Photo/FEMA Center for Domestic Preparedness

Consider the investigation, for example. It will take time to mobilize the necessary federal resources but starting the investigative process immediately is critical. Some of the questions local law enforcement must consider include:

  • Is this attack part of a larger coordinated attack?
  • Are attackers still at large and in the area?
  • What perishable evidence must be preserved or collected now, do my crime scene personnel have the resources to process potentially hazardous evidence?
  • Are fire department hazmat teams adequately trained and equipped to handle crime scenes, including the collection, packaging, and preservation of evidence?
  • Are law enforcement personnel equipped with the appropriate PPE?

Emerging threats

Various emerging threats pose a potentially significant threat to communities and local responders.

The congressionally mandated Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking assessed and identified a heightened risk of weaponized usage of illicit synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, due to their increasing availability and high lethality rate. [3] Before fentanyl, effective mass poisons were difficult to access and were rare. If dispersed properly, however, modern PBAs can be just as deadly as cyanide, nerve agents and other chemical weapons. [5] Just one teaspoon and hundreds of individuals could be effectively poisoned.

The weaponized dispersion of pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs) can occur through various methods akin to those used for other CBRN agents. Methods include covertly using spray devices in ventilation systems, releasing substances from elevated positions to utilize gravity, or causing passive exposure by intentionally contaminating common surfaces, as well as food and water supplies.


Prince William County Police SWAT team members and Prince William County, Department of Fire and Rescue, Virginia, perform multi-day CBRN training. Here, officers and firefighters conduct technical decontamination. Hazmat teams must be familiar with the special considerations law enforcement PPE presents when conducting decontamination.

Responders, including local law enforcement, must immediately become familiar with how to operate in a PBA-contaminated environment. This includes determining the extent of contamination, understanding effective decontamination processes, and conducting rescue and life safety techniques, all while ensuring that adequate protection is in place for the responders.

Advances in biotechnologies also raise concerns about potential new-age biological weapons involving engineered biology, genome editing, and other significant scientific advancements. Bioweapons are defined as “deadly pathogens, bacteria, viruses, or toxins that may be deliberately released to cause harm to people, animals, or plants.” [6] Historically, unaltered organisms have been used as bioweapons, most notably in the local context during the 2001 Amerithrax attacks, where five people were killed and nearly 20 others were sickened.

Modern biothreats include both enhanced and novel pathogens, as well as new methods for producing toxins. For instance, inserting genes into bacteria can increase their resistance to antibiotics, and reengineered microbes are capable of producing and releasing toxic biochemicals. [6] These advancements allow for the potential targeting of specific vulnerable populations and demographics for infection, while leaving others unaffected.

In the context of agroterrorism, bioagents can be engineered to specifically target certain organic materials, such as particular food crops. Additionally, these bioagents can be designed to suppress early onset symptoms under specific conditions, allowing them to remain undetected for longer periods and thereby facilitating their spread. Scientists and researchers have already demonstrated these capabilities; for instance, the synthesis of a smallpox-related virus from mail-ordered DNA has been achieved, certain influenza viruses have been engineered for airborne transmission between mammals, and botulinum toxin has been produced using yeast cells. [6]

Emerging technologies are transforming the realm of CBRN detection, response, and operations. Virtual reality training is becoming increasingly prevalent, enhancing both physical and cognitive capabilities to significantly reduce risks to responders. Additionally, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are being more widely integrated into local law enforcement’s toolkit. These tools facilitate the addition of CBRN detection equipment, allowing for remote site assessments and exploitation without the need to send responders into potentially hazardous areas. [4]

The field of artificial intelligence (AI) is advancing rapidly, and we can expect continued growth and improvement in this area. AI holds significant potential for processing information, identifying specific CBRN agents, and initiating appropriate response actions. This capability could greatly enhance the effectiveness and speed of responses to CBRN threats.

Advances in sensor technology are broadening the scope of what’s possible in augmented vision, hearing, and touch during responses to CBRN incidents. Tools such as CBRN detectors, thermal imaging cameras, and heads-up displays are being developed to penetrate previously impenetrable barriers, enhancing the visibility and insight available to responders. This technology allows them to “see through” obstacles that would have otherwise limited their understanding and situational awareness during emergencies.


U.S. Air Force 3 Echo 9 CBRN specialists attend the Specialized Personnel for Austere Reconnaissance and Surveillance (SPEARS) course, at Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Four-person teams, known as AERS (austere environment recon and surveillance), attend this rigorous and challenging seven-day course. They are tasked with effectively responding to and operating in hazardous environments, presented by emerging and modern-day threats, to be faced not only on the battlefield, but potentially here at home. The DoD has recognized the potential for significant threats to the homeland from modern-day non-conventional threats, as well as emerging threats yet to present themselves. Preparing and getting ahead where possible is key.

FEMA maintains the CBRNResponder: FEMA’s one-stop shop for CBRN incident management and data sharing, a great digital resource for response and detection. Potential funding opportunities to improve CBRN and WMD prevention and response capabilities, can be sought via current grant opportunities listed here.


Law enforcement must constantly develop and expand our skills, abilities and knowledge of all potential threats to our communities’ safety and security, not just the day-to-day threats that are typically right in front of us. As with other facets of our profession, we must remain situationally aware of emerging threats domestically and beyond and how they may affect the security of our communities, and how we do our jobs to protect those communities.

As a matter of routine, we simply do not spend enough time, preparation, or thought on the high risk, low frequency events. [7] When we do, we tend to spend it on the high risk, low frequency events that are likely to occur at some point in our career, but not so much on the high risk, ultra-low frequency events that are unlikely to occur, but still a possibility. The downside to this mentality is that if and when a high risk, ultra- low frequency event does occur, the consequences can be dire or even catastrophic in terms of casualties, infrastructure damage, and even economically.

Risk management expert and Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham explains why things go wrong and why things go right in public safety using his high-risk, low-risk, high-frequency, low-frequency chart.

We can prepare by reviewing our current plans, policies and training practices. as well as evaluating our resources and equipment capabilities. CBRN and emerging threat training does currently exist for local law enforcement including various federally funded training opportunities advertised through the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium. Here, basic, operational and advanced training is offered in the fundamentals of weapons of mass destruction incident operations, to improve preparedness and capabilities of local law enforcement and other responders. Effective training may also be carried out through established partnerships with local hazardous materials units and local and state health and emergency management agencies.

Because of the potentially devastating consequences of modern-day CBRN threats, law enforcement must also conduct pre-incident planning, implement processes for early recognition, ensure plans are in place for a rapidly integrated mutual aid network, and have a firm understanding of their resource capabilities and limitations. For instance, agencies may find that during a large scale or widespread attack, the typical mutual aid resources they rely on are already in use or being conserved by their primary agency.

Lastly, policies and procedures for biological and hazardous incident operations should be regularly re-evaluated given the constant threat evolution. Much of these practices, policies and procedures can also be applied to non-nefarious hazmat and biothreats such as pandemics and other public health emergencies.

Local law enforcement response

There are numerous methods to disseminate biological and chemical agents. All chemical agents, and most biological agents, are considered non-contagious, meaning you cannot contract or be exposed via direct or indirect contact with the infected person or host. It is for this reason some level of sophistication may be required if the intent is to cause a largescale infection/exposure rate. Law enforcement should be aware of the potential exposure and dissemination mechanisms of these agents.


DHS law enforcement CBRN Instructor Jimmy Pearce provides CBRN instruction to members of NYPD’s counter-terrorism and critical response group officers.

Photo/Mark DeSimone, Ret Detective, NYPD Counter-Terrorism Unit

Airborne inhalation is a direct and immediate route of entry for infectious organisms or particles into the body by way of the lungs, ultimately entering the circulatory system. Airborne exposure can generally be prevented by using an appropriate respirator mask.

Ingestion is the route of exposure that involves eating or drinking contaminated products. The most effective bio-terror attacks to date have involved contaminated food. [9] Ingestion as a method to carry out an attack, is most suited for attacks on individuals. Uncooked food presents the most vulnerability to harbor bioagents as the heat generated during the cooking process destroys most bioagents. Water supplies can be protected and mitigated through filtration, chlorination, or dilution. Law enforcement can decrease chances of unintentional ingestion through good personal hygiene, keeping fingers way from their face, and being cognizant of the food they eat; the food sanitation process and the process used to wash and cook the food.

Skin contact exposure is the route of exposure where agents enter through skin pores or breaches such as cuts and wounds and mucous membranes e.g. eyes, nose, mouth. When considering trending chemical and bio threats, bioagents typically do not represent a significant contact hazard as they generally do not penetrate the layers of the skin. Chemical agents however, pose a more elevated contact risk to law enforcement given the nature of daily duties. Personal hygiene remains one of the most effective ways to limit this type of exposure, along with covering even the smallest of cuts and abrasions on your fingers and hands with bandages or liquid bandage. Additionally, law enforcement should apply protective gloves whenever time allows, in the course of their duties. Protective gloves should then be removed before operating police vehicles, shared use equipment in police facilities, or property belonging to others.

Vector transmission is the method of transmitting disease to humans by way of insects such as ticks, fleas and mosquitoes, or animals. Large numbers of vectors may be produced by allowing insects to feed on infected blood or animals. This method of dissemination is considered to be least likely due to the limitations in controlling dissemination and limiting the attack to specific targets. Law enforcement can minimize the risk of exposure via this method by using appropriate inspect spray and wearing long sleeves and pants when operating in environments prone to these types of vectors. [10]

Responding law enforcement must be on the look out for signs and symptoms of CBRN agent exposure to include symptoms that mirror those of general sickness. The totality of the circumstances must be considered:

  • Are there multiple individuals displaying symptoms?
  • Are there animals present exhibiting potential symptoms?
  • How rapid was the onset?
  • What do the individuals have in common?

Law enforcement should implement protective measures to include donning protective equipment. Even if this scenario turns out to be a routine epidemic, similar personal protective measures would have been implemented.


Prince William County, Virginia, police SWAT team members and Prince William County, Department of Fire and Rescue, perform multi-day CBRN training. Here, officers and firefighters conduct technical decontamination. Law enforcement should conduct joint training with their fire service counterparts, providing orientation and education to fire personnel on PPE, ballistic gear, weapon and incendiary safety and security, evidence control, etc.

Once it has been determined that you are operating in a potential bio attack, or epidemic environment, law enforcement must consider several other factors. Many times, local law enforcement will be tasked with implementing the initial containment process to limit spread. What happens however, when you have non-compliant subjects who do not want to be limited in their movement? Many localities learned only during this past pandemic who was lawfully permitted to issue and enforce quarantine orders; in many cases statutory responsibility of issuing such notices, must come directly from the designated health official, not law enforcement. Once an order has been issued, however, generally it will then fall to law enforcement to enforce it.

Law enforcement must be prepared to enforce such orders while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and consider the potential they may have to physically respond to resistance posed by individuals who have been quarantined, while simultaneously ensuring the continuity of their PPE. If the situation escalates to the point where law enforcement must place criminal charges, plans must be in place for transporting and housing individuals who have previously been quarantined; the preparation phase is also a good time to reach out to your local jail and determine if they have a plan to house such an individual.

A detailed biological incident operations guide for law enforcement can be located below.

To effectively plan for and respond to potential CBRN threats, law enforcement should consider several factors when establishing protocols and strategies.

Before an incident:

  • Identify potential hazard locations and locations housing chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear materials, in the community.
  • Ensure officers have access to personal protective and detection equipment that will enable them to carry out their mission of life safety, hazard mitigation, suspect apprehension, and property conservation.
  • Carry out training and familiarization on PPE, detection equipment, decontamination, and basic law enforcement tactics, such as weapon retention, firearms training, and responding to non-compliant and resistant individuals, while wearing PPE.
  • Conduct ongoing training covering emerging threats and trends. WMD Civil Support Teams (CSTs) exist in each state and are a tremendous resource to local law enforcement and responders before, during, and following a CBRN incident.
  • Train public safety 911 call takers on how to collect and convey crucial information that may be indicative of a CBRN incident, prior to responders arriving on scene.
  • Train on the signs, symptoms, and indications of exposure to the various CBRN agents.
  • Be familiar with reference material and technology that may need to be consulted following an incident. Apps such as the Department of Transportation’s Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG), are available for download on smart phones. Additional resources can also be located here, courtesy of FEMA.

Responding to an incident:

  • Ensure command and control is established early in the incident and be able to function with other responding agencies, as part of a unified command structure.
  • Be familiar with current environmental conditions that would affect how a potential CBRN agent would act or spread, e.g., wind direction and speed.
  • Conduct a quick assessment of signs and symptoms and convey to incoming responding EMS personnel. Burns, for example, may come from chemical or radiation exposure, whereas exposure to many biological agents would result in symptoms delayed
  • Ensure proper preservation, processing, packaging, and decontamination of potentially hazardous evidence and property. This includes potentially contaminated law enforcement equipment, tools, and weapons.
  • Law enforcement will primarily be operating on the outer perimeter of an ongoing incident, but must be prepared to aid in the containment of potentially contaminated individuals and casualties.
  • Ensure adequate and timely public notifications and messages. The document below from Interpol, provides detailed and effective message guidance.

The realm of CBRN threat possibilities is constantly changing. It is incumbent upon us to do our part to protect the community from all potential threats we might be able to limit or mitigate. To do so, we must think outside the box and put some forethought into what we will need to do to protect our communities in the future.


1. Ryan JR. Response at the State and Local Level. Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. 2016:263–87.

2. PDD-39 U.S. Policy on Counterterrorism. (n.d.).

3. Illicit Fentanyl and Weapons of Mass Destruction: International Controls and Policy Options. (2022). In (No. IN11902). Congressional Research Service.

4. Regal G, Murtinger M, Schrom-Feiertag H. (2022). Augmented CBRNE Responder - Directions for Future Research. ACM.

5. Rutgers University. (June 1, 2023). Fentanyl can be weaponized. Preparation could minimize the damage.

6. Cummings C, Volk K, Ulanova AA, Lam DTUH, Ng PR. (2021). Emerging Biosecurity Threats and Responses: A review of published and gray literature. In NATO Science for Peace and Security Series (pp. 13–36).

7. Graham G. (July 4, 2020). High-Risk, Low-Frequency events in public safety. Lexipol.

8. National Response Plan: Terrorism Incident Law Enforcement and Investigation Annex. (2004). In (TER-1).

9. Carus S. Bioterrorism and Biocrimes: The Illicit Use of Biological Agents in the 20th Century.

10. Farlow P. (2004). Biological Incident Operations: A Guide for Law Enforcement. In Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.

About the author

Jimmy Pearce is currently a lieutenant with the Prince William County (Virginia) Police Department with over 24 years of public safety experience. He has over 20 years of CBRN/HazMat experience and is an emergency management/CBRN specialist with the U.S. Air Force, District of Columbia Air National Guard. Jimmy is also an instructor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Center for Domestic Preparedness and Louisiana State University’s National Center for Biomedical Research and Training.