WMD/Hazardous Materials Evidence Awareness

By Kevin W. Johnson

WMD/hazmat terrorism events create additional incident management challenges for hazmat response personnel. Once the priorities of life safety and incident stabilization are addressed, evidence of the crime must be collected properly to assist in the prosecution of the perpetrators.

The most important concept that hazmat response personnel must grasp is the difference between sampling for public safety purposes and collecting evidence for criminal prosecution. Hazmat teams may, working within local established protocols, collect public safety samples for purposes such as field identification of the material, determination of the risk to response personnel, appropriate medical treatment of victims, and selection of appropriate decontamination techniques. However, law enforcement must direct the collection of evidence for the purposes of a criminal investigation with the eventual goal of bringing the perpetrators to justice.


Law enforcement personnel ultimately will determine whether a WMD/hazmat incident scene is also a crime scene; they will determine the appropriate investigative steps necessary to process, or efficiently and thoroughly gather, all relevant evidence from the scene.

Although some smaller hazmat scenes may not contain the requirements for violation of federal statutes and will be handled by local or state law enforcement, the majority of hazmat incidents that involve a criminal element will meet the criteria defined under federal WMD statutes. These WMD statutes may be violated by persons attempting to research, acquire, manufacture, possess, store, deliver, or threaten to deliver hazardous materials against persons for the purposes of causing harm, disruption, or panic.1

As defined in numerous documents, including Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 and the Terrorism Annex of the National Response Framework (NRF), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the lead federal agency for the investigation of a terrorism incident. The FBI, working in conjunction with the United States Attorney’s Office, will identify the appropriate violations of the statutes and begin the process of building the criminal case. It is important to note that the FBI, while legislatively the lead agency, cannot perform this mission alone. Local, state, and federal partners are essential to the success of the investigation as it unfolds. First responders should anticipate that the FBI will integrate into the existing incident command system (ICS) structure.

The NRF defines the placement of FBI personnel into three key ICS positions: Unified Command, Deputy Operations Section chief, and Deputy Planning Section chief.2 The operational investigative components of the FBI working at the scene will commonly establish an FBI Hazmat Branch within the Operations Section and provide a supervisor to fill the function of FBI Hazmat Branch director.

The types of hazardous materials potentially involved in terrorism incidents include, in general order of their likelihood to be encountered,3 explosives and explosive precursors, biological toxins (ricin, botulinum neurotoxin), toxic industrial chemicals (chlorine, anhydrous ammonia), biological pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi), radiological sources (Cobalt-60, Strontium-90), military chemical weapons (nerve agents, blister agents), and nuclear weapons and improvised nuclear devices.


Hazmat incidents involving a terrorist criminal element will pass through four distinct phases: Tactical, Operational, Crime Scene, and Remediation.4 The establishment of an ICS structure early in the incident will assist in the facilitation of these phases.

(1) FBI Hazardous Materials Response Team personnel check for vehicle identification numbers during a training session simulating a post-blast scene involving a release of radioactive materials. (Photos courtesy of the FBI HMRU.)

The Tactical Phase of the incident involves the removal of any hostile threats from the hazmat environment. Local, state, and federal law enforcement tactical teams will likely be responsible for completion of this phase.

Once the hostile threat is removed, the incident will enter the Operational Phase. A critical step during this phase is the “render safe” of all explosive devices and antipersonnel devices (booby traps). Once the scene is rendered safe, rescue efforts, hazmat leak mitigation, hazard stabilization, and medical treatment and transport can take place. As discussed earlier, hazmat responders should take samples for public safety within the guidelines established by their jurisdiction. An important consideration during this sample collection must be to preserve as much of the hazardous material as possible for later collection by law enforcement as part of crime scene processing. The potential benefits of conducting presumptive field tests can coexist with the needs of law enforcement. Responders conducting any destructive presumptive tests must understand that the success of definitive testing in an accredited laboratory will depend on sufficient sample material reaching the laboratory.

Nonlaw enforcement responders should not gather samples with the intent of those samples becoming evidence. Local, state, or federal law enforcement officials may place samples that were collected by responders for the purposes of public safety into evidence at a later time or may direct responders to collect isolated evidence such as hoax powder letters delivered via the Postal Service or courier.

As the initial phases of the incident progress, first responders should establish the same incident priorities as other incidents: life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. Although the destruction of evidence is possible and, to an extent, anticipated as part of the life safety process, once rescues have been effected and threats to the public from ongoing hazmat releases mitigated, the scene should be secured, all responders should leave the hot zone, and the Crime Scene Phase will begin.


All public safety samples collected must be field screened for the presence of explosive devices, radiation, and volatile chemicals prior to their admission to the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) laboratories. The field screening process is focused on classification rather than identification and should be performed prior to packaging of the material.

(2) An FBI Hazardous Materials Response Team member performs field screening on chemicals during training inside a simulated clandestine weapons of mass destruction (WMD) laboratory.

Field screening begins with a clearance of explosive devices by an accredited bomb technician, followed by a check for alpha, beta, and gamma radiation; a check for flammability with a combustible gas indicator; a check for oxygen levels with an oxygen monitor; a check for volatility with a photo ionization detector; and a check for corrosives with pH paper (pH on liquids only). If first responders perform the field screening, the results are provided to the FBI during a threat assessment conference call as defined in the National Response Framework. Once the lack of a threat to the LRN from explosive devices, volatile chemicals, or radiological materials is confirmed, the materials will be deemed safe to move and transported to the LRN.


Although law enforcement coordinates the Crime Scene Phase, first responders should anticipate a request to support evidence recovery operations with lighting, hazmat entry support, or other similar functions. Understand that the Crime Scene Phase will be methodical and thorough. In addition to the chemical, biological, or radiological materials present, investigators also will collect traditional forensic evidence. Law enforcement agencies follow specific guidelines regarding the acquisition of warrants, affidavits, hazmat evidence, and traditional forensic evidence.

During incidents involving WMD/hazmat terrorism, the FBI’s Hazardous Materials Response Unit (HMRU) and Hazardous Materials Response Teams (HMRTs) will follow a risk-based template involving the creation of objectives, an evidence-specific site safety plan, and evidence sampling plan and the implementation of standardized evidence-collection procedures.

All evidence collected will be field screened following the guidelines mentioned above. Once the evidence is collected, HMRU hazmat officers will package and transport the evidence in FBI vehicles to identified laboratories for analysis.


Identifying the difference between public safety sampling and evidence collection will ensure that first responders to WMD/hazmat incidents efficiently perform their life safety function while supporting law enforcement efforts to process the crime scene at a later time.

First responders should follow their standard operational procedures on gathering samples for public safety. Hazmat response personnel should perform rescues, mitigate significant releases, and then establish a secure perimeter around the potential crime scene for law enforcement processing.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 472, Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents, 2008 Edition, introduces as a mission-specific competency for Operations Level Responders “Evidence Preservation and Sampling.” The competency is further defined in the NFPA Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Response Handbook, 2008 Edition. The evidence preservation and sampling mission-specific competency outlined in NFPA 472 can assist responders with training and response.

Together, all responders to WMD/hazmat incidents can work as a team to ensure that the perpetrators of the event are brought to justice and prevented from initiating additional terrorist events.


1. Commonly cited federal statutes include Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Statute of 1989, (BWAT) Title 18 USC §175; Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction Statute, Title 18 USC §2332; and the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998, Title 18 USC §229.

2. National Response Framework, Terrorism Annex, 2007.

3. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

4. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hazardous Materials Response Unit.

Kevin W. Johnson is a senior hazardous materials officer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hazardous Materials Response Unit (HMRU) in Quantico, Virginia. He has more than 30 years of public safety experience. He is responsible for oversight of the Training, Special Operations, and Detection & Monitoring programs for the HMRU. Prior to joining the FBI in 1999, Johnson served for 16 years as an EMS provider with the Jefferson County Emergency Medical Service in Louisville, Kentucky, and volunteered for 23 years with Jefferson County fire departments, holding numerous positions including captain. He has degrees in fire science and occupational training & development and was a certified level II fire instructor in the state of Kentucky.

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