California Labs Create Plans to Protect Airports from Chemical and Biological Attacks

Airports are considered prime targets for terrorists, but a new blueprint developed by Sandia/California and Lawrence Berkeley labs could make them safer from chemical and biological attacks.

A five-year project, which included simulated biological attacks at San Francisco International Airport, has resulted in guidelines for airports nationwide. Finished this week and expected to be distributed soon, the report includes plans to better prevent, detect and respond to attacks.

"If you had to bet money on where the next attack would be, airports would be high on the list," said Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory physicist Phillip Price.

Airports may appeal to terrorists because shutting down a busy U.S. airport for a week would have a major economic impact on the country. Airports also carry the potential to spread harmful agents all over the world.

"Collectively, we know a lot about how to protect buildings from chemical and biological attacks," said physicist Susanna Gordon of Sandia/California National Laboratories in Livermore. "We felt it was important to protect airports and get all this information to them."

In addition to being attractive targets, airports are difficult to protect. The Department of Energy expanded a project to develop a chemical detection system for the Washington, D.C., subway system -- in response to a 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack -- to include airports.

In recent years, the project has been funded by the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.

Since 1999, Sandia has worked with SFO to figure out how best to deal with the unique characteristics of airports, including cavernous terminals and long, connected corridors. Other challenges include vast differences between airports and even between terminals at the same airport -- often built decades apart.

"A lot of airports are like a museum," said Price. "For example, Reagan airport in Washington, D.C., has some of the oldest still-functioning airport buildings. But there are also newer parts."

Price specializes in airflow and pollutant transport in buildings, research conducted for decades at Lawrence Berkeley to find ways to improve buildings' energy efficiency and indoor air quality. Because of this expertise, Lawrence Berkeley joined Sandia on the project in 2002.

SFO was a good test case because it has a fairly typical mix of old and new terminals, and airport officials were eager to collaborate.

Before the new international terminal was opened, the team simulated attacks in the building to learn how chemical and biological agents would spread and find the best way to minimize and respond to that spread.

They pumped smoke into the terminal to mimic a biological attack and used a harmless traceable gas to simulate a chemical attack.

Many airports already have protocols in place for clearing smoke from buildings in case of fire, and the team found that some of these protocols would help in the event of a chemical or biological attack, but that others could make matters worse. Emergency response teams need to know when it is best to try to flush air out, when it is best to try to contain it and when it is best to evacuate.

The lab team also has been testing a system of early-warning sensors at the San Francisco airport that could alert emergency responders of a bioterror attack.

In November, the scientists met with SFO's emergency response crew to run through some attack scenarios to help iron out response issues at SFO and streamline recommendations for other airports.

SFO has incorporated some of the recommendations into its plans, and a new decontamination vehicle on site uses special decontamination foam developed by Sandia to clean up after a chemical attack.

"I'm sure other airports can learn from what we learned working with Sandia," said SFO spokesman Michael McCarron. "There are things that can be applied across the board."

Because of the varied nature of airports and terminals, coming up with a set of guidelines that will help all airports was challenging.

"We've given them a template to work from to develop their own plans," said Gordon.

The report contains a blank report card that airports can use to determine how vulnerable they are to attacks. The team hopes this will act as a wake-up call for airports whose managers may not be aware of the risks.

"Some airports are forward looking and focusing on this issue already. But other airports aren't looking in this direction, and we'll have to figure out how to bring their attention to this," said Donna Edwards, a national security analyst at Sandia.