Sandia LabNews

Researchers develop anti-terrorism decision analysis tool

Sandia researchers help prepare public health officials, others with antiterror ‘decision analysis’ tool

Imagine the unimaginable: terrorists have released a biological agent throughout the San Francisco Bay Area that threatens to harm or kill local residents. As information on the outbreak becomes available, key decision makers and government entities — including public health officials, law enforcement, emergency management personnel, elected officials, and media — must decide when and how to respond. The speed and effectiveness with which they do so may mean life or death for dozens — or thousands — of citizens.

Officials at the local, state, and federal levels are actively addressing this problem, and efforts are well under way to identify effective countermeasures that would reduce the destructive impact of such a scenario. Sandia researchers are doing their part by developing a sophisticated tool meant to assist government officials and others involved in the decision-making process. The program, initially designed for public health officials but to be expanded for other key entities, is a product of the California site’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Decision Analysis Center (WMD-DAC).

"If an event like this were to occur, decision makers would have to act quickly and efficiently, but without the luxury of having all of the information at their fingertips immediately," says Howard Hirano (8101). "What we’re doing is creating the situation ahead of time so that — by playing through various scenarios — the involved decision makers can examine various protection and reaction schemes and figure out what works best under different conditions."

Howard says the program will help answer some of the more pressing questions facing decision makers, from city officials all the way up to the White House.

"How much of an emphasis should we place on building up stockpiles of anthrax prophylaxis? What portion of our investment should go into developing a stronger information network between physicians? And how important are early warning sensor technologies? These are some of the issues that the WMD-DAC program can help address," says Howard.

The hub of the program is Sandia’s Visualization Design Center (VDC), a "war room" of sorts that allows users to better comprehend complex issues and situations. The program uses advanced computers, display systems, and software tools that simulate an attack based on real and projected data.

For the Bay Area model, for example, researchers integrate information on symptoms, illnesses, and deaths gathered from local hospitals and coroners’ reports to accurately simulate and understand the impact of identifying trends as early as possible. Using this and other data such as air measurements or more detailed physicians’ reports, response strategies can be examined and tested. "The idea is that a public health director or other key official can take the information they learn from the simulated event and integrate it into their own emergency plans," says Howard.

This simulation capability is the result of a six-month "program definition study" — completed in June 2001 — during which team members analyzed new threats and the site’s unique capabilities in combating those threats. The researchers determined that a more integrated approach was necessary, one that brought together the perspectives of those involved as they sought to deal with an event that unfolds over days and weeks, having to make decisions along the way with incomplete information. The result was the WMD-DAC, an interactive, multiplayer simulation "facility" that presents information in a format useful to decision makers with an underlying — but user transparent — core based on the latest technical knowledge.

Anticipating the next attacks

While researchers were examining the many dimensions and decisions that are fundamental during a biological attack, the events of September 2001 — and the subsequent anthrax scare — added a sense of urgency to the work. Officials with DOE and the Department of Defense, anticipating the next wave of attacks, sought new strategies to protect citizens, and the current WMD-DAC approach was accelerated.

First piloted against a biological attack of the San Francisco Bay Area, the program is now being adapted to address other threats and applications.

"The simulated scenario has really resonated with the physicians and other decision makers we’ve worked with to date," says Howard. "It’s clear they’ve thought about the problems and decisions they’d be faced with during an attack, and consequently they’ve helped us to focus on key details and information they will need." Howard says the overwhelming response has been positive, with several officials commenting on the value of the simulation tool in making their jobs more effective during a terrorist event.

Sandia researchers continue to look at additional capabilities that will allow the simulation to address other dimensions and data. One feature currently in the works, for example, is the ability to track a moving population, an important detail for health officials following the spread of contagious diseases such as smallpox. The ability to detect biological agents or other materials soon after they are released — a Sandia capability already far along in the development and testing stage — will also be added in some applications.