Sandia LabNews

PROTECTing against chem-bio terrorism

Sandia researches ways to PROTECT facilities from chem/bio terror

Preparedness for a chem/bio terrorist attack has been an area of active research at Sandia since well before 9/11.

"The trends in terrorism toward large-scale, high-visibility, high-casualty attacks have been recognized for at least five years," says systems analyst Susanna Gordon (8112).

She has helped lead a five-year program, PROTECT (Program for Response Options and Technology Enhancements for Chemical/Biological Terrorism), that focuses on safeguarding enclosed public facilities such as subway stations and airport terminals. PROTECT aims to demonstrate near-term improvements in response plans, and mid-term improvements using existing or state-of-the-art technology.

PROTECT, a collaboration between Sandia, Argonne National Laboratory, and participating transit authorities, began in 1998, three years after the deadly sarin attack in the Tokyo subway. The chemical-agent release by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult left 12 dead and 5,500 injured, even though the dispersal through 15 stations was deemed ineffectual, Susanna says.

Due to that precedent and the desire of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to work with the labs on this issue, PROTECT initially focused on a possible chemical agent release in a subway.

"We wanted to try to understand how an agent would spread, model it, and then see if reasonable measures could be taken to minimize casualties," says Duane Lindner, deputy director of Advanced Technologies Dept. 8101. "We’re discovering there are some things you can start to do today that won’t take a lot of money, but will help."

Theatrical smoke and tracer gases have been used to track air flow through transit facilities, such as the Washington Metro.

An integrated, prototype chemical early-warning system has been installed in a Metro station (Lab News, July 28, 2000), where for nearly two years Greg Foltz (8112) has been leading the evaluation of a sensor array for its ability to operate properly in a subway station environment under real-world conditions of rail dust and grime. The sensors have proven capable of fulfilling this need, and a new generation of sensors is being designed for future installations based on the data gathered in this field test.

In the event of a sensor alarm, sensor readings will be analyzed by Argonne-developed software, the Chem/Bio Emergency Management Information System (CB-EMIS), which is designed to map the concentration and direction of a plume. Video images supplement the readings, to confirm whether an attack is taking place. The information, along with recommended response options, is sent first to the Operations Control Center for initial evaluation of the alarm. The control center also receives information with recommendations of "safe zones" and advice to shelter in place or evacuate. If an incident is declared, CB-EMIS provides the same information to the Incident Commander on the scene so emergency personnel will know what they may encounter, and if they should suit up in protective gear before entering.

In addition, Sandia is providing a second software package to the Metro to allow access-controlled, web-based monitoring of the sensor system on a routine basis by Metro maintenance staff and police. This tool displays alarms as well as maintenance faults, and so could be modified to facilitate the rapid deployment of similar sensor systems in other facilities even in the absence of more sophisticated information systems such as CB-EMIS, which may take more time to modify for each facility.

"Nine-eleven really drove home the point for us that a lot of these things are in the operational details," says 8100 Center Director John Vitko.

Since minimizing exposure is key, Susanna adds, "Time really is of the essence. We have found in our analyses that facility response in the first few minutes after an attack is critical."

Emergency response to a chemical incident in the Metro was tested in a field demonstration in December 2001 when the station was closed for the night. A fictitious perpetrator spilled water (simulating an agent) in the station, dashed out and collapsed as a train carrying event "players" pulled up. The plume was modeled by Argonne, and the response of the detectors was simulated by Greg Foltz.

"We are, in part, supposed to determine if the commercial equipment is ready," Greg said. "The technology is here and will clearly improve. We’ll be able to integrate next-generation devices as they become available into the operational response system."

The team also plans to implement Sandia’s gas-phase ┬ÁChemLab for chemical agent detection in the demonstration program, he says. Two subway systems and an airport authority are now involved in the program.

The airport environment, Greg says, should be more conducive to testing biological detectors, which are being added as the program evolves to include defense against biological agents.

One of the concerns, Susanna points out, is that neither threat — chemical nor biological — would necessarily be immediately apparent (unlike fires or earthquakes). It is well known by the public that a biological attack would likely go unnoticed; however, it is less well recognized that some chemical agents can be similarly insidious. For instance, mustard, a chemical weapon of World War I, can be odorless and cause no symptoms for several hours even after exposure to a lethal dose. Detectors that are sensitive to such agents add great value by informing a facility of a threat that may otherwise not be noticed. Detection of faster-acting agents is also quite valuable, because hastening facility response can have an enormous benefit.