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Homeland Security Testing New Bioagent Sensors in Boston Subway Line

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

Commuters enter a Boston subway station in May 2011. The Homeland Security Department has begun testing new biological agent detectors at subway stops in the city (AP Photo/Elise Amendola). Commuters enter a Boston subway station in May 2011. The Homeland Security Department has begun testing new biological agent detectors at subway stops in the city (AP Photo/Elise Amendola).

WASHINGTON -- The Homeland Security Department has begun vetting several new bioagent detection systems that could one day be deployed at airports, subway stations and other locations around the United States.

Roughly 60 sensors have been dispersed in Boston subway stops. A first round of testing was conducted last week, and trials are expected to continue on a regular basis for six to eight months, said John Verrico, spokesman for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate.

The tests are intended to determine whether sensors produced by four different companies could detect the terrorist release of a lethal biological agent. Homeland Security specialists, in this case, are releasing an inert, harmless bacteria after the subway line shuts down each day.

“The goal of the test is to characterize the performance of the different sensor systems within this operational environment,” Verrico told Global Security Newswire by e-mail. “We are not intending to have a single ‘winner’ from the tests we are conducting, but to understand the performance of each sensor type -- some performance characteristics may be better suited for specific environments, and so having a range of sensor types is beneficial.”

Three of the devices being tried out check the air on a nonstop basis for changes to atmospheric content that would indicate a dangerous biological agent is present, according to Verrico. The fourth type analyzes air samples to confirm the existence of such a threat, he said.

The technologies could ultimately be acquired and installed by public health agencies, transit operations and other organizations, Verrico said. Homeland Security’s findings from the test program will be provided to those potential users.

There is no set schedule for fielding any of the technologies, the spokesman said. Ultimately, they could be placed in transportation hubs, sports stadiums and other locations where significant numbers of people congregate, and other buildings that could be at risk for acts of biological terrorism.

‘‘We know that history tells us transit systems have been attacked by terrorist organizations,’’ Lew Best, deputy head of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, told the Associated Press in a reference to the 1995 sarin nerve agent strike in the Tokyo subway system.

Homeland Security has previously used the Boston subway to study the airborne movement of potential terrorist materials. The new testing will serve to validate the previous results, Verrico stated.

The new project was two years in the making and cost $3.3 million.

“This project represents a dramatic advance in science from the traditional way of detecting a biological hazard -- people getting sick -- which may be days after exposure before we know something has even happened,” Verrico said. “These new sensors may be able to provide early alerts in less than 30 minutes from the time of release, allowing responders to quickly mobilize protective measures.”

The sensors would be fielded indoors as a complement to devices already in place in about 30 cities under the department’s Biowatch program. Recent reports have indicated the Biowatch systems are subject to producing false alarms and other technical troubles, though Homeland Security has stood by the efficacy of the technology.

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