Tech Versus Terror

When Common Sense and Courage Are No Longer Enough

First responders are on the front lines of counter-terrorism. When terrorists attack, emergency services personnel have no choice but to react. That makes police, fire and medical personnel vulnerable to attackers that can strike anonymously, from a distance, with invisible weapons. The iconic image of terror in our time is the collapse of the World Trade Centre’s twin towers, but to many first responders, the 1995 Tokyo subway attack and the 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S. are just as compelling. When weapons can’t be seen or smelled, first responders without the correct instrumentation literally don’t know what they’re dealing with.

Terrorism aside, first responders face increasing and varying threats. In recent years, these threats have ranged from toxic methamphetamine chemicals exploding in residential areas, to the Internet-driven trend of ‘chemical suicide’. Some of the ­people who seal homes or vehicles and then mix common household chemicals to create a deadly gas are thoughtful enough to post warning notes for first responders. Many don’t.

Until people on the front line can accurately, and with confidence, identify any toxic materials that may be involved, even minor incidents can trigger major reactions. After 9/11 and the major bombings in London and Madrid, people take terrorist threats seriously. David Hidson, a nuclear scientist with long experience in defence and security, believes uncertainty itself can be a killer. “Radioactivity is great for terrorists because people are so frightened of it. Really, most people would be killed in a stampede or car crashes.” Compared to other unseen threats, radiation is well understood, with technology that can measure ambient levels and give warnings when readings indicate danger. “Solid state detectors can be cheap, effective and give you an indication of what you’re dealing with.” Ideally, first responders would connect to commanders through their personal radios. “That would be the ideal place for them, obviously,” Hidson said.

A major part of first responders’ work today involves reassuring the public and restoring public services as quickly as possible. To do so, they need portable, fast and accurate equipment that can justify an ‘all clear’ notification.

Ryan Clermont of Clermark Inc. supplies civilian and military with equipment to detect and contain hazardous materials.  “It has been important for operators to ­conduct a larger proportion of their threat analysis directly in the hot zone; therefore, the need has increased for equipment that is small, transportable, ruggedized for the field, while continuing to be decontaminable.”

According to Clermont, biological threats have always been the most difficult for first responders to detect, but today, with PCR (Polymarase Chain Reaction) instrumentation, investigators can identify biological threats in the field. “Although PCR is recognized as a very accurate means of detecting biological agents in the field, it was deemed too complex a process, requiring an advanced degree of skill and expertise on the part of operators,” remarks Clermont. “It wasn’t until recently that feedback from first responders has led to the development of instruments, such as Idaho Technology’s RAZOR EX, that aim to ­provide the advanced benefits of PCR technology in a portable, ruggedized and easy to use system designed more for firefighters and soldiers than for highly specialized­ ­laboratory operators.”

Matt Scullion, a senior executive with Idaho Technology told FrontLine that his company has made all its bio-terror and bio-warfare equipment rugged, automated and easier to use. “That is more or less all we have done in the last 10 or 12 years, to the point where we essentially make technologies, that are normally found only in laboratories, available to first responders and very minimally trained operators.” He believes the major requirement for detection technology in the future will be: “Ease of use, ease of use, ease of use.”

Scullion suggests that the Sarin gas attacks in Japan forced governments to do a much better job of keeping track of chemical precursors and materials for chemicalweapons, and the ability to make them. “The bio realm is a little bit harder to keep track of because it is easier to get hold of the base materials to grow biological weapons.” Chemical weapons have been identified as one of the major, emerging threats to watch for, and this ties in with other emerging infectious disease threats like the swine and bird flu. Scullion indicates there is considerable overlap in these various biological threats.

The first impulse of many first responders is to rush into an incident scene and begin treating casualties. Laser Detect Systems of Israel uses laser spectroscopy to give emergency crews some distance while they analyze the threat. “The advantage of the laser scanning technology is in the ability to quickly and accurately detect any kind of explosive material in any form – liquid, powder or gas – with no recovery time,” says Laser Detect President Eli Venezia. “Remote scanning sensors can detect such materials in situ or remotely, in a standoff mode – thus potentially saving lives.”

Though chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) incidents or attacks in North America will ­probably be rare, those that do occur will have a very high detrimental impact.

If protection has a cost, so does failure. Most well equipped CBRNE teams are in big cities or serve an entire region. As Ryan Clermont says, “New technologies are most often implemented in organizations that have the greatest capability to pursue new capital procurement programs. When looking at the landscape for emergency ­preparedness in Canada, it would appear that there are numerous municipal responders (Fire Departments) that are using outdated or less advanced biological identifiers than those currently available in the ­marketplace. In multiple cases, we have seen examples of instrumentation needs going unfulfilled due to a lack of funding.”

Eli Venezia does not believe that organi­zations and governments fully understand the danger of the terrorist threat in urban areas. “Unfortunately, budgets allocated for Research Development and the purchase of new equipment are too low. The threat is complex and elusive, and often requires more than a single solution,” he observes.

Detectors mounted on robots and unmanned vehicles give emergency personnel even more stand-off distance from threats, and Venezia thinks combinations of detectors employing different detectors technologies and sensors will ultimately feed data to fused data processing and monitoring centres, in real-time. “At LDS, we believe that any kind of high level solution for law enforcement and first responders will be based on the integration of several technologies of sensors. Each company will push its own technology, but the future is in the integration of several technologies – in one data fusion system, that optimizes each technology.”

The ultimate tool for first responders, the Tricorder, first appeared on October 6, 1996 on a Star Trek episode called The Enemy Within. As any ‘trekkie’ knows, the vital ­tricorder was able to detect any possible hazard to the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Unfortunately, Matt Scullion does not believe today’s technology is even close. “Maybe that will be the case in 30 or 50 years, but we are not quite there yet,” he says. “I don’t think we are quite at the point where first responders are walking around with sensors that light up whenever they come near [a dangerous chemical].”

Richard Bray is the senior staff writer at FrontLine Security.
© FrontLine Security 2011