Having the latest scientifically backed technologies, policies, and best practices at their disposal allows Department of Homeland Security (DHS) leaders, policy makers, and frontline personnel to make critical decisions and respond quickly and confidently in times of emergency. One way the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) ensures that decisionmakers are prepared for any and all scenarios is through the SAGE Program, which brings together—to the literal table—a network of experts from government, academia, and industry to arm DHS and its global partners with comprehensive and reliable assessments of how to plan for, respond to, and recover from known threats.
In June, S&T, DRDC, and OCSA held a bilateral tabletop exercise titled “Arctic Thaw,” which tested both countries’ SAGE programs. Subject matter experts (SMEs) collaboratively gathered and shared data, information, and advice to help senior staff implement recommendations and policies that would mitigate the effects of a hypothetical Anthrax outbreak that had originated in Alaska and the Yukon and spread to surrounding areas in both the U.S. and Canada.
“The goals of this joint tabletop were to assess our SAGE program and see how we could improve our international emergency management response relationship with our Canadian counterparts,” said S&T Chief Scientist Dr. Sam Howerton. “Prior to this exercise, both countries executed this scenario to see how effectively their programs could handle a biological crisis at the national level. However, this tabletop gave us a unique opportunity to evaluate our ability to work together and share critical scientific advice and information during a binational biological emergency.”
The scenario for the exercise focused on a hypothetical Anthrax outbreak occurring in the spring, when unusually warm temperatures and erratic weather patterns thawed permafrost in the Alaska and Yukon regions of the U.S. and Canada. As a result of the thaw, a dormant strain of Anthrax was brought to the surface and reintroduced into the environment. Due to its transmissibility and high rate of infection, the Anthrax posed a critical threat to nearby populations. Unknown numbers of both animals and people were exposed, resulting in infections and illnesses that began to spread across the Yukon, Alaska, and surrounding regions.
To address this scenario, both teams utilized agreements under the U.S./Canadian Cooperation in Science and Technology for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Border Security treaty to collaboratively seek out and share crucial information related to the Anthrax outbreak. This included data that identified populations most likely to transmit the disease and infect others, and rates and modes of infection and transmission across Alaska and Canada. They then used their findings to formulate recommendations and advice that could help implement policies or actions to mitigate or stop its spread.
“While this Anthrax epidemic was hypothetical, the point of the tabletop was for us to operate under the mindset that a similar event could plausibly take place at any time,” said Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Science and Technology Glenn Podonsky. Therefore, it was important that we take it seriously and leverage our unique partnership with DRDC and OCSA to share as much information with each other as possible.”
The SAGE teams identified and partnered with SMEs from federal and local governments and health agencies, along with communities in both Alaska and the Yukon region of Canada, to collect epidemiological data. This information enabled them to pinpoint the specific indigenous populations that had been exposed to and infected by Anthrax. Effected populations included Canadian First Nations groups living in Old Crow and Dawson City, Yukon, and Alaskan tribal groups, who were vulnerable due to their proximity to the melting permafrost and their reliance on/consumption of local caribou that were infected through ingestion of the contaminated grass and soil.
As the exercise progressed, the teams worked with health officials and traced the spread of the Anthrax infection to Anchorage, Alaska; and Whitehorse, Calgary, and Toronto, Canada, via local markets where both the First Nations and Alaskan tribal groups were selling the infected caribous’ meat and hides to local residents of the cities and tourists. The customers were then acting as vectors to spread the Anthrax to additional locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Through their ongoing assessment of the outbreak, the SAGE teams were able to better understand the origins of the Anthrax infections; how they were spreading; and their potential economic, social, and cultural impact on the indigenous, local, and surrounding communities. The teams used their findings to develop recommendations and advice for senior leadership, policy makers, emergency managers, and frontline personnel that could be implemented to quickly mitigate the effects of the ongoing epidemic and prevent further infections from occurring.
Preliminary outcomes from the joint tabletop indicated that S&T and Canada’s SAGE programs served as effective and efficient tools that enabled both countries to work together and empower their leadership to respond to a hypothetical international crisis quickly and effectively. However, participants also recognized that improvements could be made to strengthen their bilateral response to future emergencies.
“One major challenge that S&T, DRDC, and OCSA identified, is the need to raise awareness about the SAGE program, its purpose, and its processes and procedures for collecting scientific information,” explained Dr. Howerton. “Quite a few government and community agencies, both in Canada and the U.S., were either not aware of the SAGE program; didn’t understand what it does and were therefore hesitant to share their data; or didn’t understand the processes and agreements that we use to share information, making it difficult for them to get data to us in a timely fashion.”
“In a real emergency situation, any lack of awareness about SAGE would serve as a critical barrier to getting the information we need to address an ongoing crisis,” explained Podonsky. “As we continue to improve our program and strengthen our partnership with our Canadian colleagues, getting the word out about SAGE and the key role it plays in addressing crises, both local and abroad, will be essential for ensuring that we are prepared to respond to future binational emergencies.”
When asked to give her thoughts on the SAGE program and DRDC’s partnership with S&T, Director General of R&D Policy and Advice for DRDC Christina Jutzi said, “we are proud to support the Canadian government’s continued efforts to integrate the use of science into emergency management. Our ongoing collaboration with S&T to generate and deliver sound scientific advice in all components of emergency management will only strengthen our various domestic and international partnerships.”
Looking forward, S&T and Canada are planning to schedule another scenario-based bilateral exercise in 2024 to continue exploring strategies for improving their SAGE programs and related joint responses to potential transnational emergencies.