Reflecting beyond the day I found out why.

Enhanced Ebola Screening Efforts Are Ineffective for Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD)

With Chicago O’Hare’s new enhanced screening efforts targeting the Ebola Virus, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) staff are relegated to a side room, unable to provide effective presence on the front lines for detection of more frequent travelers coming from other airports that may also receive travelers from West Africa without effective screening. Executives from 300 Below, inbound from Russia today, witnessed ineffective screening procedures, lack of equipment for DHS CBP agents, and fear faced by CBP agents who fight an invisible enemy.

CHICAGO, IL — Contrary to prior official statements, Customs and Border Patrol agents are NOT the first to meet passengers potentially carrying Ebola when they arrive in the United States. It is clear upon entry that the United States Government (USG) is allowing private security contractors at the front of these lines to direct traffic, effectively prescreening and separating International Visa Holders from United States Citizens, further separating American travelers who retain Global Entry trusted traveler status. Upon re-entering the United States, no representatives from the CDC stationed prior to the front entry lines to screen passengers from other flights with the intent of recognizing signs or symptoms of passengers carrying the Ebola virus.

Additionally, front line Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are, because of ineffective construction at screening facilities, as well as hindered access to (and likely a lack of proper instruction for) personal protective equipment (PPE), being placed at greater risk. Following our in-person interviews with DHS CBP staff today at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), these agents are operating with elevated levels of fear for their safety as well as the safety of the families they return to. Some CBP agents warned passengers of reporters standing outside the customs clearance facility; one expressed concern about the safety of their own family due to their regular interaction with passengers who are coughing upon approaching screening booths.

One loophole for introducing the Ebola virus into the United States is through Trusted Traveler lanes, which greet U.S. citizens who travel frequently with less screening. These lanes could provide more thorough screening if the kiosks were updated to include sensors inside biometric equipment that check traveler temperature and other vitals.  Using technology from Theranos, developers could even incorporate a small pin prick to sample blood at electronic checkpoints, since Theranos has rapid testing results and is already deploying testing capability into Walgreens stores.

After landing today at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, if you review the security footage, I was met with an empty lane whose CBP staff were not even in the booths for the Global Entry lane. There were three CPB agents standing around who casually allowed me to proceed without any additional screening. Global Entry travelers like me are at an even greater risk, statistically speaking, because they travel more frequently than other passengers who are not enrolled in Global Entry, potentially moving between other destinations undeclared on their original itinerary through foreign airlines that do not share traveler information with the United States. We are giving them direct access into the United States without any updated security questions on kiosks that discuss travel to West Africa or potential encounters with passengers who have been in these regions. At Global Entry, the government system recognized that I was coming from Düsseldorf, Germany but not ultimately Russia, which was my point of origin for this trip.

Further inspection of construction at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) clearance facility inside Chicago O’Hare Airport reveals the lack of effective Personal Protective Equipment and Personal Protective Barriers for its personnel. Unlike countries like Germany, Russia and Malaysia that utilize full window barriers between travelers and customs screeners, the United States has failed at Chicago O’Hare and other international points of entry to create full window barriers between CBP agents and newly returned travelers.

According to a recent news article, CDC admits the virus may be airborne, spread by airborne droplets originating from coughing or mucous, with updated criteria for ebola transmission being within 3 feet. Coughing and sneezing travelers are easily within range of spreading mucous and other airborne droplets of fluid containing the virus to CBP agents acting as screening personnel.

Our border patrol agents on the front lines are inadequately prepared or equipped to handle screening, and their elevated level of fear actually has the opposite effect intended: CBP agents are not being given clearly defined directives as to when they may don PPE, nor did they have access to it today when I was screened in O’Hare. Without access to PPE, CBP agents are now psychologically incentivized to let travelers move more quickly through screening lines when they come face-to-face with a traveler who is coughing or sneezing. According to them, coughing or sneezing alone isn’t enough to get CDC involved. We have some brave men and women on the front lines who are fighting a war with an enemy they cannot see, and right now their only clear choice to protect themselves (and their families at home) is to decrease their own risk by exercising their power to move travelers expeditiously through screening lines. Faster screening might seem like a logical option for agents to protect themselves, but ultimately it results in sloppy work and ineffective screening.

The same problem may cause challenges with interagency collaboration between CDC and DHS. CDC is likely making suggestions which DHS executives are taking time to review through multiple meetings, ultimately forced to struggle with limited resources, fear in their ranks, lack of prior frequent training with PPE for its personnel, lack of clearly communicated donning protocols related to biological agents like Ebola, and limitations for the interaction their own agents must commit to based on current mission demands. CBP agents and other DHS assets were never intended to make decisions requiring qualified medical personnel, yet that is the logic our government leaders are ready to apply.

It is very likely that middle management is avoiding making tough decisions, because no individual wants to get blamed for a specific action that isn’t effective enough, ultimately leading to termination or further public scrutiny. For many government middle managers, these leaders are mostly concerned with their own job security rather than bold action. Unfortunately DHS is not like the Marine Corps: Middle managers in agencies often follow only the guidelines they are issued, failing to interpret and apply ‘Commander’s Intent’ if you will, without additional implementation until they are issued further specific information. One possible result is taking no timely action following senior directives, whether due to inaction or requests for clarification, which ultimately still fails to prevent a mass outbreak of the Ebola virus

Do you think President Obama or Director Frieden will know how best to protect Chicago’s Airport or any other specific facility? Typically a contractor is hired to create the isolation and protection plan for each screening location, identifying specific flaws and recommended corrective actions, but we don’t have time for a government contracting process to tell us what flaws exist and what we need to do to prevent them. CDC must quickly deploy its existing resources and get them to the front lines, ahead of DHS CBP and any of its security contractors. America has failed its first responders in prevention efforts, deployment of PPE, and training, which has yet to be standardized.

OSHA guidelines are clear about providing personal protective equipment to employees serving in a law enforcement capacity. I’ve seen agencies where inept or dysfunctional leaders are reassigned to manage warehouses, resulting in ineffective accountability and delayed movement of critical resources, which prevents front line workers from getting the PPE they need to do their job. We saw this happen today when none of the agents we met had been issued any PPE. They’re told they don’t have an option to show up or not, even facing Ebola, yet OSHA actually mandates that we provide effective PPE for front line workers in a law enforcement capacity. Our government is failing to uphold its own laws, and it’s time DHS, CBP and CDC to get on the same page in equipping agents until our contractors can catch up and give the government another boost of private-sector support and expertise.

The innovation needed to combat challenges with Ebola cannot come fast enough. Our company, 300 Below, is willing to contribute knowledge and technology assets toward collaboration with innovators in biological protection, such as Battelle Memorial Institute, which leads the nation in developing and managing sophisticated comprehensive training programs for the deployment and employment of Personal Protective Equipment. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has partnered with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to issue a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for awards of up to $1 million dollars to advance PPE modification in airport and security screening settings. Americans need more companies to embrace this challenge, especially in the State of Illinois, in order to combat our nation’s urgent need. More companies like 300 Below should contribute resources to ensure an effective national response to the Ebola epidemic and future outbreaks, resulting in strengthened public-private partnerships to solve this epidemic.

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Prescott Paulin is a prior U.S. Marine Corps officer who previously served the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA) and Washington Headquarters Services (WHS) as an Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, specifically authoring recommendations to improve training protocol while concurrently training Pentagon Police Officers to properly utilize personal protective equipment (PPE) to serve and protect Americans while confronting the invisible enemies of chemical or biological agents. Paulin was badged to train law enforcement officers at the DHS Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Cheltenham, MD. He currently serves 300 Below, Inc. as its International Research Consultant.

300 Below, Inc. provides metallurgical engineering services as the world’s largest and oldest commercial cryogenic processing company, in business since 1966. Through its liquid nitrogen based services, molecular structures of steel components are rearranged to last 200-300% longer for around 20 percent cost of the component. For 2014, 300 Below has introduced a new line of non-toxic cleaning and lubrication technologies as well as a patented scrub pad. 300 Below’s cryogenic tempering process acts an extension of the heat treatment process used in manufacturing defense and aerospace components, high-performance motorsports applications, 262,000+ gun barrels, sporting goods, and musical instruments. 300 Below has started 156 operations in 36 countries around the world with its technology. Customers include NASA, as well as all branches of the U.S. Military and their contractors.