Chemical Threat Detection Goes Portable

New technology units appearing on the scene take chemical detection from pipe dream to prominence in security systems

Questions of false alarms

The question that everyone wanted to know, including Lieutenant Frederic Foster, the Emergency Preparedness Commander for the MARTA Police Department (MARTA is the Metro Atlanta subway, train and bus commuter system), was how prevalent false alarms would be with the technology. After all, the emptying of and sweeping of a subway station is a time-consuming and expensive process, says Foster, even with nine canine teams at their disposal. While Isonics could not provide any statistical data on false positives for the new equipment, Rubizhevsky did say the technology had been implemented at the German Parliament building in Berlin since 1999 and that the system there had only been falsely tripped once.

“What happened was that the cleaning company had changed its cleaning agent,” said Rubizhevsky. “One of the components of that cleaning solution was a precursor chemical for Tabun, the chemical warfare agent. So it picked up on the chemical and an alarm went off." "Once they figured out why, it made sense,” said Rubizhevsky, who said that in final consideration, it wasn't a false alarm, but a case of the detector doing what it was programmed to do.

Finding a market

The price for the unts isn't cheap, which is to be expected considering the level of specialization and research involved. The detection units will likley sell for between $20,000 and $35,000 depending upon configuration and order volume, and at that price, the main markets are law enforcement departments, mass transit providers, and first responders.

These market may be well-placed. By detecting homemade explosives (the kinds of explosives used in London and Spain’s mass transit bombings) and common nerve agents, the systems go beyond what most K-9 teams (which are often trained solely for drugs and explosives, and not for chemical agents) can recognize.

Today's detection systems, of course, move beyond simple detection of whether a particle is a "bad guy". By identifying what threat agent is in play, emergency responses can be tailored. Some gases are light, and therefore rise, so a suggested response could be to vent it skyward while having people in the area get as low to the ground as possible. But, says Rubizhevsky, a heavy gas like Sarin will sink, and if you instruct the population to get down on the ground, then you’ve actually exposed them to threat at an even greater level.

While units like those which Isonics launched today may at first be bought up by homeland security grant money (GSA placement is key to this type of device), Koehler points out that general safety issues -- not just terrorism concerns –- will likely drive further interest in emerging detection technologies.

“We had one bank that was looking at these units for its air system,” said Koehler, “not because it was concerned about terrorism, but because it was situated next to a number of rail lines and was concerned about an accidental leak from a tanker.”

Of course the best feel for how ready the market is for this type of technology can come right from the mouth of a potential user like MARTA’s Lt. Foster. Asked how seriously the Atlanta transit system brass was considering detection units for the transit stations, Lt. Foster wasted no time in his response.

“They are very serious,” was his straight-lipped reply.

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