Tuesday, February 13, 2007

BioWatch - Oversight Problems Solved?

The DHS Inspector General recently released a report on the BioWatch program, the heart of which is a system of air-quality detectors, mostly in cities, that watch out for biological agents.

For biological agents, detection is extremely important. Unlike chemical agents, which tend to have quick impacts on health, biological agents tend to have delayed effects on health. Unless detection of biological agents is quick and reliable, the first indication of a biological incident may be a large number of people falling ill, with symptoms that may not be quickly diagnosed. The result may be an unnecessarily large number of casualties.

In 2004 and 2005, audits of the BioWatch program found that DHS was not adequately overseeing the program. There were inconsistencies in reporting, in performance of the testing systems, and in review of financial expenditures.

DHS says it has dealt with all these shortcomings, and the Inspector General seems happy with the changes:

The [DHS] Under Secretary [for Science and Technology] has taken action to resolve the issues. Based on management's description of actions taken, we consider the recommendations resolved and closed.
Yet I thought this was an interesting excerpt:
BioWatch program management said that DHS has recently begun issuing grants directly to state and local air monitoring agencies. To date, BioWatch program management reported that it has awarded grants to approximately 33 percent of the state and local agencies . . .
It's not clear to me what process DHS is using to evaluate the spending of this grant money, or how the state and local funds are fitting into the system. Unfortunately, the report doesn't go into details, though I'm curious.

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