Portland, Ore. SensorNet, a first-alert anti-terrorist network, is being tested in Tennessee before it's delivered to Homeland Security for use nationwide. It is one more step toward outfitting U.S. weather stations to detect the release of toxins and predict where the winds will take them.
The Tennessee prototype will be a good test of the national deployment plan, said John Strand, project manager for the SensorNet program. The state has 87,000 miles of public roads, 1,073 miles of interstate highways, 3,000 miles of freight rail, five municipal/international airports, 603 hospitals, 332 chemical sites (with 500,000 to 1 billion pounds of explosive materials) and an additional 342 sites with more than 1 billion pounds of explosives. As a test bed, the Tennessee SensorNet prototype will help identify the problems that Oak Ridge National Laboratory hopes to solve before turning the system over for nationwide use.
A cooperative effort by Oak Ridge and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the program now has working sites in New York, Washington and Fort Bragg, Calif., and Nashville, Knoxville and Oak Ridge, Tenn. The lab (www. ornl.gov) plans to perfect SensorNet's continuous real-time monitoring software by adding NOAA sites statewide. It will expand beyond the three existing sites in Tennessee to include Memphis, Chattanooga and Sullivan County. Eventually, SensorNet will span the state with sensors that can alert emergency responders and the public when they are in danger of being exposed to water- or airborne toxins from chemical, biological or radiological releases.
"NOAA is the organization that puts weather sensors throughout the United States. We co-locate with their sensors," said Strand. "NOAA already had a program to upgrade their sensors, so what we are doing is providing the infrastructure for their sensors the communications and data-collection mechanisms plus we are adding sensors to those sites, including chemical and radiological sensors."
By adding sensors for toxins and remote telemetry to those already managed by NOAA, Strand said, SensorNet is destined to become the principal first-alert system for terror attacks. "What SensorNet is all about is being able to collect, manage and disseminate data from sensors," he said.
SensorNet will incorporate predictive models similar to weather patterns. Called drift models, they pinpoint areas most likely to be affected next as a toxin disperses.
Sensors are normally polled every 15 minutes from a central location for updates on weather conditions. But the lab has added a microprocessor-controlled interrupt system that signals automatically whenever one of its new toxin sensors is tripped. Now it just takes a second to issue an alarm to Homeland Security if a toxin sensor encounters significant levels. "If something does happen and they [sensors] go over a threshold, then they automatically shift up and start providing information about once a second," said Strand.
One of the major test deployments will cover Fort Bragg, a small coastal California city that may see 60,000 to 100,000 people on any given day, Strand said. There the lab will identify operational issues that must be addressed for a complete SensorNet integration with existing emergency systems.
"At Fort Bragg we are integrating our sensor systems with their emergency-911 system, with their EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] sensors, with their fire alarms and with all the other systems that you have to have to run a city," said Strand.
SensorNet seeks to ensure that the first responders to any terrorist threat are properly equipped and warned about the hazards they will encounter. Its software will be perfected at Oak Ridge now so that if an attack occurs, Strand said, the proper communications pipelines are already filled and flowing. The data will be available at the local, state and national levels, right down to the PDA in a firefighter's hand.
"One of the hard parts will be making sure you can collect the data, and manage it and present it in near real-time," said Strand. "Just think about it. The first responder goes to the sound of the guns. Wouldn't it be nice if he knew whether or not he should get out of the truck, or make sure he's got his mask on or whatever?"
To Department of Homeland Security personnel running the final SensorNet system, computer monitors will provide a bird's-eye view of toxin types and locations, and will also make it possible to zoom in and out to show or to hide detail.
The monitors, which offer both traditional two-dimensional as well as advanced 3-D viewing, will also predict what are called "plume progressions" that display on-screen where the toxin is likely to drift next and when.