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Center for
Domestic Preparedness

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CDP Use of Ricin in Training

CDP Statements

Updated Monday, May 8, 2017, 10:00 AM

Through the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP), FEMA offers the only program in the nation featuring civilian training exercises in a true toxic environment, using chemical agents and biological materials. The advanced, hands-on training enables students to more effectively respond to real-world incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, explosive, or other hazardous materials.

To maintain the highest standard of safety culture, FEMA is taking steps toward implementing recommendations from a recent management review of the live agent training at the Chemical, Ordnance, Biological and Radiological Training Facility (COBRATF), part of the CDP. The management review was conducted earlier this year after discovering that a vendor shipped, and the CDP used, a more toxic version of ricin in training. Soon after this discovery in November 2016, CDP suspended all chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF.

The implementation of the Management Review Team’s recommendations will be led by an Acting CDP Superintendent who will be charged with establishing a coordinated governance structure to support management of the live agent training as well as the continued implementation of recommendations. The former Superintendent has been detailed to FEMA’s Headquarters Office to assist in the execution, administration, and inter-agency coordination of continuity programs.

The ongoing suspension of live agent training represents a defining opportunity to develop an improved governance structure that further postures the COBRATF to provide targeted, realistic training to first responders, with curriculum tailored to unique operational roles, in a state-of-the-art environment with live agent capabilities. The recommendations center on key areas that span training operations, agent verification procedures, internal and external oversight, facility and equipment requirements, workforce and strategic partnerships, and the need to further align processes and protocols with civilian regulations and industry standards. A more detailed summary of these findings and actions can be found here.

What Happened?

In November 2016, while making a purchase of ricin A-chain for training, staff at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness recognized an ongoing discrepancy in the documentation related to the type of ricin being provided. The vendor, a private company that was registered on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Select Agent list, had provided the materials since 2011. What Are We Doing About It? Upon learning that a more toxic version of ricin had been received, and out of an abundance of caution, FEMA halted all chemical and biological operations and conducted an internal management review of CDP operations, to verify and catalog procedures and identify additional enhancements to ensure the safest training environment possible.

While FEMA reviews the findings and implements the recommendations from the assessment, CDP will continue offering a modified version of courses that typically would have included live agent training.

What Does This Mean for Students?

There is no higher priority than the health and safety of our employees and those we train. We have no indication that any students were harmed. During training, students work with several chemical and biological agents, and use protective measures appropriate for the most dangerous agents. Students wore protective gear that exceeded what would be required for working with ricin slurry. Students who trained with the agent were in full Level C personal protective equipment at all times when training with the agent, which is commensurate with the level of protection used by the United States military at similar training facilities. This web page will be updated as additional information becomes available. Students who may have questions can e-mail COBRAQuestions@cdpemail.dhs.gov

What is the CDP doing regarding the current training schedule?

During the suspension of chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF, the CDP will present a modified version of courses that typically include toxic agent training. Students can contact their CDP Regional Coordinator using information at https://cdp.dhs.gov/contact to discuss questions they may have about their specific class.

I was enrolled to attend a course during suspension of chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF. Is my class cancelled? Currently, Hands-On Training for CBRNE Incidents (HOT) is postponed until further notice. The courses below are modified and conducted outside the COBRATF toxic agent training facility, and will be fully compliant with graduation requirements. However, they will NOT include toxic agent training.

  • Technical Emergency Response Training for CBRNE Incidents (TERT)
  • Hazardous Materials Technician for CBRNE Incidents (HT)
  • Hazard Assessment and Response Management for CBRNE Incidents (HARM).

When will CDP resume training with biological and chemical agents?

There is no higher priority than the health and safety of our employees and those we train. FEMA recently completed its internal assessment of CDP operations. The assessment included verifying and cataloging procedures to determine if any enhancements should be made to maintain the highest standard of safety culture. The internal review team included senior agency officials deployed to CDP. While FEMA reviews the findings and recommendations from the assessment, CDP will continue its suspension of live agent training. At this time, FEMA does not have an anticipated date for re-start, as that date will be dependent upon the recommendations adopted, and the time it takes to implement those recommendations.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Updated Monday, May 8, 10:00 AM

The following questions were developed to help answer students’ questions and will be updated as needed.

Why does CDP use dangerous materials in training?

CDP’s Chemical, Ordnance, Biological and Radiological Training Facility offers the only program in the nation featuring civilian training exercises in a true toxic environment, using chemical agents and biological materials. The advanced, hands-on training enables responders to effectively respond to real-world incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, explosive, or other hazardous materials. Responders serve as the nation’s first line of defense and deserve the highest-quality training available. FEMA’s program called for the use of a less toxic type of ricin — ricin A-chain — that would ensure that students gain full confidence in their ability to detect a biological agent. The ricin A-chain produces the same test results as ricin holotoxin (more toxic) for detection purposes, providing students a realistic training environment.

Is CDP continuing to use the more-toxic form of ricin?

No. CDP temporarily suspended operations with all biological and chemical materials and immediately initiated an inquiry into the situation to review all internal and external protocols.

I was enrolled in a course during suspension of chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF. Is my class cancelled?

During the suspension of chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF, the CDP will present a modified version of courses that normally include toxic agent training. Those courses will be conducted outside the COBRATF toxic agent training facility and will be fully compliant with graduation requirements. Please contact your CDP Regional Coordinator using information at https://cdp.dhs.gov/contact to discuss questions you may have about your specific class.

How much ricin did CDP receive from the vendor since 2011?

Since 2011 CDP ordered nine shipments from the vendor. Exact on-hand amounts varied based on training requirements. At no time did the quantity of ricin meet or exceed the 100 mg Select Agent exclusion as governed by the CDC.

Were students protected against biological materials and toxins?

Yes. There is no indication any students were exposed or harmed during training. During training at the COBRA Training Facility, students work with several chemical and biological agents, and use protective measures appropriate for the most dangerous agents. The protective gear students wore exceeded what would be required for working with ricin slurry. Students who trained with the agent were in full Level C personal protective equipment at all times when training.

Additional information about mandated procedures can be found in the BMBL (Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories - 5th Ed HHS Publication No. (CDC) 21-1112 Revised December 2009) (PDF).

What company sent the wrong substance?

Following federal regulations, CDP ordered ricin from a non-public vendor listing registered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. CDP staff informed CDC of the error and the CDC is investigating the vendor.

What other types of controls does CDP have in place to ensure the safety of its students?

In addition to ensuring all students use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), CDP also administers a pre- and post-training blood test to anyone going through chemical or biological agent training to measure Red Blood Cell Cholinesterase (RBC ChE) activity. Since the nerve agents CDP uses inhibit RBC ChE activity, a depression in the post- versus pre- blood level would indicated exposure. To date, no staff or student has shown a depression in RBC ChE activity, verifying that no significant exposure to these agents has occurred. It also verifies the PPE was working and fully protected the student and staff during the training activities with GB and VX nerve agents. By association, this test also indicates that no exposure to the biological materials occurred and that the PPE provided full protection.

What is ricin?

Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans. When castor beans are processed to make castor oil, ricin is part of the waste material produced.

How does ricin work?

Information about ricin can be found on the CDC’s website.

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