POWERFUL TECHNOLOGY STRONGER RESPONSE
When emergency responders immerse themselves into the scene of a disaster or terrorist incident, they do not stop to check their tool bags to see if they have the right technology. They simply respond and do the best they can with the tools they have.
Unfortunately, first responders need better tools. Their communications systems often lack adequate command and control functions. Detecting threats in the air or inside sealed containers still takes time and poses great risks. Technology designed to clean up after biological or chemical attacks remains experimental. Video surveillance technology, while much improved in recent years, can still be difficult to deploy and operate during emergencies. And medical technology seems to have lost ground when judged against the risks posed by chemical, biological and radioactive weaponry that terrorists may deploy.
In recent years, advancing technology has begun to address these and other problems and risks faced by first responders. New technology has been pouring out of research labs, into test sites, and into the marketplace for the better part of two years. And at last, first responders may soon begin to find that their tool bags contain more of the equipment needed to do their jobs.
Here’s a look at some emerging first responder technologies.
A national laboratory for first responders
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Wash., have made first responder technology a priority. PNNL scientists and engineers are now at work on a host of technologies aimed at improving the odds of success for police, fire and emergency medical first responders.
Some of the notable ideas being developed include Web-based command-and-control systems, material inspection devices, clean-up technologies, identification and tracking technologies and protective clothing.
EMAdvantage upgrades the quality of communications between emergency command centers (EOCs), first responders in the field, and executive command structures that monitor events. The recently released Web-based software application generates a graphical display that enables everyone on the team — from command center dispatchers to police and firefighters — to review and update situations in the field and within the overall response structure. “While people have always been able to talk with phones and radios, this device works with computers and handheld PDAs,” says Mark Hevland, deputy manager of environmental, safety and health systems for PNNL. “Unlike many communication systems, this technology is interoperable and works across organizational lines.”
EMAdvantage screens display pre-loaded data such as protective protocols and the addresses of relocation centers. The system models hazards such as chemical releases; it activates emergency declarations, tracks activities on user defined status boards, and manages resources.
Acoustic Inspection Devices enable police officers or other first responders to determine whether materials inside sealed containers pose a threat. To inspect containers carried by cars, trucks, ships or planes, the handheld technology shoots an acoustic pulse through the container. When the container and its contents reflect the sound wave, the device measures the speed of the reflections and the attenuation of the signal. A database stored in the device compares the characteristics of dangerous materials with the readings acquired from the container, identifies what is inside and advises on the next steps.
The device has proven useful with liquid-filled containers. “If you think that a container is hiding a bad liquid, you have to open it,” says Steve Martin, senior manager with the PNNL National Security Directorate. “If it isn’t something innocuous — if it is a hazardous material or chemical threat, then you’ll put the person opening the container at risk unless he or she suits up. This acoustic technology interrogates sealed containers without opening them. It can confirm that the materials in the containers are the same materials described by the manifest or something else.”
Over the years, acoustic technology has been used to screen for drugs and contraband at border crossings. PNNL has modified the technology with new libraries designed to identify hazardous materials including chemical and biological weapons. Acoustic detectors are currently available in the market.
Raman Laser Spectrometers, another material identification technology, can identify materials that can be seen, such as a liquid spill or a liquid inside a transparent glass or clear plastic container.
“Acoustic interrogates containers you can’t see into; Raman laser interrogates materials you can see,” Martin explains.
Visual Sampling Plans (VSP) address the problem of cleanup after an incident. Several of the facilities contaminated during the anthrax attacks of 2001 remain closed today, because it is so difficult to ensure that cleanup measures have been completely effective. “How do you know that you’ve found everything?” Martin asks. “Anthrax spores might remain hidden in the ventilation system, on a filter, on the carpet. How many swab samples must test negative before you are satisfied that the facility is safe? From where must you collect the samples?”
VSP software enables users to develop sound statistical strategies for sampling contaminants in soil, sediments and water, and on building surfaces. It can help determine the most probable locations of unexploded bombs, mortars and grenades on former practice ranges. “VSP essentially buries the nasty statistical rigor that’s necessary for this kind of work beneath a fairly simple, visual interface designed for non-statisticians,” says Brent Pulsipher, statistical sciences technical group manager at PNNL.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, around for many years, is being adapted by PNNL researchers to help track first responders on the scene of an incident. Used in conjunction with an entrance portal at a command center, RFID tags worn by first responders can inform command management about who has arrived on the scene. The system also connects to databases with training records and informs incident commanders about who has been trained to do what.
A building equipped with properly programmed repeaters can track RFID tags worn by first responders in the building and record their movement throughout. “If the building isn’t instrumented, you can use workarounds like portals at the entrances to read tags as people enter and leave,” Martin says.
PUMA is a system of fiber optic neutron sensors that can be woven into the clothing worn by first responders involved in a radiological attack. Similar to a dosimeter, the fibers sense radiation and warn first responders entering areas with dangerous concentrations.
Sniffing out trouble in the air
Sceptor Industries of Kansas City, Mo., and Sarnoff Corp., Princeton, N.J., have joined forces to develop a handheld particle collection device that will enable material detection and identification technologies to sniff out airborne biological threats in outdoor settings.
Detection devices that identify airborne biological threats need adequate supplies of particles from the air being examined. Most first responders have collectors that work in confined indoor spaces where particles are already in concentrated form. Outdoor collectors, however, must collect and concentrate particles by drawing in large volumes of air.
Outdoor tests can help direct emergency responses to releases of bio-terrorism weapons — whose release may be accompanied by fires at chemical plants and biomedical facilities. They also help prepare for crashes of trucks, trains and airplanes carrying hazardous materials.
To date, effective outdoor collectors have been expensive and bulky. Sceptor and Sarnoff are developing a compact electrostatic collector (CEC), which they hope to sell for about one-third the cost of existing devices. “Suppose we have an anthrax-type scare that has to be verified in the field,” Sceptor CEO Richard Jarman says. “Other collectors are too big and too heavy for rapid deployment and require large power supplies. The CEC is the size of a thermos, weighs the same as a laptop computer, and only needs five watts to run. Troops in the field or civilian emergency personnel can hand-carry it into the potentially hazardous environment, collect the samples and get out — without extra equipment or elaborate setup.”
According to Jarman, the device has been designed, built and tested. “Now we’re fine-tuning the design and expect to be in production soon. We’re hoping to have it on the market by the middle of the year.”
Video radio networks
When Internet-enabled video systems arrived on the technological scene, commercial security systems found a way to reduce cabling costs and expand video coverage. But Internet video has not worked well for police setting up temporary remote surveillance systems. “In working with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), we have found that Internet or IP-based video is too slow,” says Steve Reinharz, a regional manager with Hamilton Pacific LP, a Pasadena, Calif., security systems integrator.
Video cameras capture moving pictures at the rate of 30 frames-per-second (fps), but IP video must conserve network bandwidth and is often set to transmit 15 fps or less. At reduced frame rates, video becomes difficult for law enforcement officers to monitor effectively. “Studies show that regardless of intelligence, educational background or motivation, it is difficult to watch video monitors displaying low video frame rates for more than 20 minutes,” Reinharz says. “It’s jumpy and difficult to watch, while 30 fps video flows smoothly.”
Similarly, Internet video systems create lag time for pan-tilt-zoom controls, making it difficult for an operator to follow an event as it unfolds.
Hamilton Pacific has solved this problem by developing a long-range wireless CCTV system that features 30 fps video and can communicate over distances as great as 40 miles. Called Remote Officer Augmentation and Multiplication (ROAM), the system is currently being used by the Rampart Division of the LAPD to combat crime in MacArthur Park, a city park beset by open-air narcotics markets and gangs selling false identification materials.
After comparing ROAM with Internet-based video surveillance systems, the LAPD decided to set up a 15-camera ROAM network to monitor the park. Within three months, the police had made more than 150 felony arrests and virtually eliminated crime in the park. Backed by video evidence, the arrests have a 100 percent filing and conviction rate.
The secret to the system’s effectiveness is that it is as easy to use as a radio, says Reinharz. “We’re using off-the-shelf video equipment linked to a simple-to-use system,” he explains. “At the control station, an officer uses a joystick and a keypad to switch views from one camera to another and to operate the pan-tilt-zoom controls. Behind the simple controls is a long-range radio frequency transmission system that sends pan-tilt zoom signals as well as 30 fps video in real time.
Another benefit to the system is ease of installation. When police want to monitor an area, they simply mount the cameras and tie them to a transmitter which communicates with the receiver. Power comes from regular 110-volt connections or battery packs.
A seldom-discussed need of first responders is medical treatment for those exposed to infectious biological weapons. Aethlon Medical Inc., San Diego, is developing a technology that may prove useful in treating patients infected with highly contagious viruses and related toxins.
The company has combined the concept of kidney dialysis with something called affinity chromatography, a technology that binds viruses and toxins to antibodies and other harmless biological agents.
Kidney dialysis removes excess fluids, urea, and other toxins from blood flowing through foot-long plastic cartridges filled with thousands of microscopic fibers. The fibers contain pores that filter out impurities that healthy kidneys ordinarily remove.
Aethlon has designed a cartridge with porous fibers that can remove viruses and toxins related to poxviruses, hemorrhagic fevers, certain flu viruses and the toxins produced by each. “The viruses and toxins diffuse through the pores of the fibers,” Aethlon president and CEO James Joyce says. “We fill the space inside the cartridge (but outside of the fibers) with binding agents such as antibodies. The viruses and toxins filter through the pores and attach to the binding agents.” Joyce says that the technology has performed effectively in lab tests and is now being moved through clinical trials including animal safety and efficacy tests.
Disasters such as hurricanes and the Sept. 11 attacks create serious communications problems for first responders. Regular telephone networks — both cellular and wired — often collapse under the weight of traffic from hundreds of thousands of calls made all at once.
The National Communication System (NCS), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, has set up a priority calling system to ensure the ability of first responders, as well as state and national leaders, to communicate during emergencies. “NCS is responsible to ensure emergency communications for first responders during emergencies,” says Stephen Barrett, the public affairs officer for the agency.
NCS has set up a program with all major communications carriers, under which first responders can request Government Emergency Telecommunications Service or GETS cards imprinted with special phone numbers. During an emergency, if the phone system goes down due to heavy traffic, first responders can get through by dialing the number on the card followed by a phone number. The special number routes the call through a system reserved for emergency telephone service and gives the number being called priority. According to Stoops, the agency has issued 95,500 GETS cards to date.
NCS is also developing a similar priority service with cell phone service providers.
The cost of new technology
While researchers develop new first responder technologies, money, as always, remains in short supply. “Funding is always an issue,” says Hamilton Pacific’s Reinharz.
A recent report sponsored by the Council of Foreign Relations discusses how serious the funding issue has become. According to the report, entitled “Emergency Responders: Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared,” fire departments have only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift. Police departments do not have the protective gear required to secure a site safely following an attack with weapons of mass destruction. Cities lack the equipment necessary to determine what hazardous materials emergency responders may be facing.
The report examines data supplied by emergency responder professional organizations and officials across the country and concludes that first responder budgets will need $98.4 billion more than is already budgeted to satisfy identified needs over the next five years. The additional funds would upgrade emergency 9-1-1 systems, enhance urban search and rescue capabilities, foster the development of interoperable communications systems, enhance public health preparedness, strengthen emergency operations centers, provide protective gear, support training exercises, and enhance emergency response capabilities to attacks on the food supply.