Gathering evidence in PPE is cumbersome and hard work.

CBRN forensics – Exploring new and innovative investigation technologies

There is no doubt that Europe is under an everyday threat of terrorism and the chance of that escalating into an attack from chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) agents also seems to be increasing. Fire brigades (and others) have been improving their capability to deal with these attacks, but until these attacks materialize the skills needed to prosecute the individuals behind them will still lag behind the optimal.

Securing a prosecution from a CBRN crime scene, will require the successful interrogation of evidence, either at a crime scene contaminated with CBRN agents, or of the agents themselves back at the lab. This is an absolutely vital part of CBRN defence and, at present, forensic investigation is hampered by a lack of protocols and training in carrying out forensic analysis on CBRN contaminated materials.

The generic integrated forensic toolbox for CBRN, or GIFT CBRN, consortium, funded under the European commission’s seventh framework programme, is designed to close the many gaps inherent in this complex area and provide an integrated law enforcement CBRN capability that is world class.

The GIFT consortium is developing the most advanced forensic toolbox for CBRN incidents in the world. Through the cooperation of Europe-wide research agencies, first responders, industrialists and subject matter experts, the toolbox will provide enhanced capability in three key areas of CBRN forensics:

  • Procedures, sampling methods and detection of CBRN agents at the crime scene.
  • Traditional forensic laboratory methods for dealing with contaminated evidence.
  • Laboratory methods for profiling CBRN agents released at an incident.

The project aims to help forensic investigators who are looking for ways to improve and develop their work and techniques. The GIFT consortium is doing this by working with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and researchers outside of the forensics field to see where new and innovative technologies could be applied to the niche world of CBRN forensics.

By looking beyond the forensic sector, the project is aiming to keep skills and knowledge up to date with other industries and to learn from their ideas and challenges. The consortium is made up of colleagues from a whole variety of industries to help take CBRN forensics to the next level.

One of the challenges being explored in the project is the best way to enable scientists to do more work directly at the crime scene – more measuring and recording safely at the crime scene so that the laboratory is left with the high end work to do. The partners are studying and researching new equipment and protocols to bring more of the laboratory work safely out in the field. GIFT researchers have been developing on-scene technologies, methods and instruments so scientists don’t have to take so many contaminated materials back to the labs, as well as looking at ways to carry out traditional forensics on the contaminated materials.

Some of the problems specific to conducting forensic analysis in a contaminated environment, are being explored by the consortium through the development of novel methodologies and technologies which will enable forensic investigators to perform enhanced analysis at the CBRN crime scene. Some of the innovations being explored include:

Detection of alpha-emitting particles using UV

GIFT consortium researchers at the Finnish Nuclear and Radiation Safety Authority (STUK) achieved a breakthrough in developing a new approach for remote detection of alpha contamination and have published a paper on their project success: Stand-off Radioluminescence Mapping of Alpha Emitters under Bright Lighting.

The detection is based on the optical measurement of radioluminescence light that is produced by the absorption of alpha particles in air. The faint light emission is observed in UV wavelengths and this is managed in daylight, rather than the darkness required in other alpha imaging experiments.

While scientific grade cameras have been successfully applied in previous experiments, due to their low noise characteristics and good sensitivity to UV light, this project used a scanning photomultiplier tube (PMT) system redeveloped as an imaging system.

The STUK team used an optical system, based on the Galilean telescope, and constructed it using commercial components giving it a high efficiency while keeping the costs down. The performance of the alpha particle detection was studied using well characterised alpha emitters at the Institute for Transuranium Elements in Germany.

The researchers reported that one of the key benefits of the new approach was that the spectral response characteristics of a PMT are not as prone to visible light as silicon based camera sensors. This created their key breakthrough – measurements in environments which don’t have to be dark.

Attribution signatures for chemical, biological and radiological agents

The Netherlands Organisation for applied scientific research (TNO) has been looking at chemical threat analysis – assessing if people have been exposed to chemical agents. Alongside this, it is working on chemical profiles, looking to develop tools to identify chemical attribution profiles.

Attribution profiles consist of data on the presence of chemical attribution signatures (CAS) which are byproducts from synthesis and impurities in starting materials.

CAS are known for limited sets of chemicals and new knowledge of profiling methods on a set of chemical threat agents would represent major progress. As part of the GIFT project, TNO is looking at the development of analytical tools to determine a broad range of hazardous chemical agents in environmental and human samples.

Portable detection technologies are among those being created and investigated by the GIFT team.

Portable detection technologies are among those being created and investigated by the GIFT team.

CBRN Risk Assessment Tool

A team from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), and the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) have been working within the consortium to develop a specific CBRN Risk Assessment Tool for forensics. The tool will be an electronic system of questions, accessed via the graphic user interface of the GIFT toolbox. Once initial information has been gathered by first responders at the scene, the officer in charge of the forensics team, will access the risk assessment tool and input the information available, to assess the risk of harm to the team.

The tool will run on a series of yes/no questions and will return suggested actions as a result. If, for example, you input the type of agent detected, it would advise on the correct type of PPE required to enter the scene, any necessary respiratory protection or skin protection, or a particular type of glove.

The CBRN risk assessment tool would be quite versatile and could be used either after an incident to check on the live issue and give advice, or it can be used if there is a perceived risk of something happening.

Technology moves fast and that is why the GIFT partners are working with academia, industry and SMEs to look at other ideas and innovations and to work out how some of these solutions, ideas and innovations can be transferred across into the forensic domain.

GIFT Project Leader, Ed Van Zalen, Programme Manager for CBRN at the Netherlands Forensic Institute, said: “GIFT is just one step, after this project is completed, the work will continue and we will be seeking for funding for further research and development.

“The challenge for Europe is that not every country has the same CBRN forensic capabilities available. My aim for GIFT is that we use it to set a gold standard across Europe and raise the bar so that every country is able to develop a minimum core capability for CBRN forensics,” he said.

As the consortium partners are exploring new procedures, technologies and techniques which will enable forensic teams to carry out work in very difficult circumstances, either through decontamination or through containment processes, one of the additional aspects is training in how to carry out these new processes.

It is hoped the GIFT toolbox will reduce the amount of lab work needed.

It is hoped the GIFT toolbox will reduce the amount of lab work needed.

A key element of the GIFT project is the running of training exercises and then using the lessons learned from these to develop a curriculum, an education and training programme to help support the roll out of the toolbox across the EU.

The first training exercise took place late last year at the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh in the UK and looked at the radiological side of the project, testing processes and protocols which have been developed within the project. There are a further two exercises planned early this year, in Belgium and the Netherlands.

All of the lessons learned and issues raised during these exercises will be put together, along with other aspects, to create a CBRN forensics training curriculum which can be used to train forensic scientists going forward. The GIFT toolbox will provide the procedures, protocols and equipment all in one place, for the first time ever, setting a world-class standard, so it is important to also set up programmes to train people to use them.

The three-year GIFT project will be concluding at the end of this year, but it is hoped that many of the ideas and research projects developed within it, will be taken forward by countries and that it will lead to an improved CBRN forensics capability across Europe.

In the longer term some of the visions which have come out of the project include a desire to understand the different roles at the crime scene better and to bring the safety and security streams closer together. Generally, the two streams are separate at an incident as the priority for the safety stream, who are the first responders, is to rescue people and make the place safe again, while the security stream, who are the investigators, want to prosecute the perpetrators.

Longer term goals would be to bring the safety and security streams together and train together so that perhaps, eventually, the responders could use some of the early stage toolbox equipment to help shape their initial response and this can also be used to help shape the forensic investigations.

Within GIFT the aim of the toolbox is that it will connect with existing and future technologies so future developments in the programme could include sensors and technology for first responders, which then link through to the forensics team, but this is a very long term cooperation goal and is not included in the current funding. Many deliverables from the project are available to accredited agencies, and those interested should either go to https://giftforensics.eu/ or contact Claudine.weeks@cbrneworld.com

The consortium consists of 21 partners, from across Europe:

  • The NFI – The Netherlands
  • Tyndall University – Ireland
  • TNO – The Netherlands
  • RIVM – The Netherlands
  • M2L – UK
  • Falcon Communications – UK
  • FERA – UK
  • AWE – UK
  • STUK – Finland
  • FOI – Sweden
  • NFC – Sweden
  • Analyze IQ – Ireland
  • NICC – Belgium
  • RMA – Belgium
  • Space Applications – Belgium
  • JRC-ITU – Spain
  • CEA – France
  • Eticas – Spain
  • RAMEM – Spain
  • LQC – Spain
  • Nanobiz – Turkey

For more information, go to www.giftforensics.eu

References

1 http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/11/world/france-terror-threat/

2 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/31/isil-wants-carry-mass-chemical-attack-britain-minister-warns/

3 https://giftforensics.eu/

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Claudine Weeks is Marketing Communications Manager. Claudine has been working in the media and communications industry for the past 22 years across the public sector, and has experience of content marketing, editorial, social media, event management, PR and e-marketing campaigns. Claudine’s experience within the emergency services sector has included taking part in major international exercises, as well as dealing with media crisis management on scenes. Claudine is the newest member of the growing Falcon team.