Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Technology, All Is Technology!

Hmm... DHS is studying a proposed new technological system for detecting biological, radiological, and chemical agents:

Imagine that instead of anthrax-laced letters targeted at members of Congress the next bioterrorist attack to hit Washington is a wide-scale release of a toxin in the transit system. But rather than trusting a haphazard series of stationary air sensors installed at likely release points on platforms and waiting areas, first responders minimize the assault using thousands of mobile biodetectors embedded in a standard tool in every commuter’s arsenal: the cell phone.

According to such a plan, a portion of the phone-toting population would voluntarily use devices that included minuscule bio, radiation or chemical sensors that could detect dangers in real time. If terrorists released a toxin, cell-phone sensors would detect the substances and signal the threat to District of Columbia police via the Global Positioning System network.

Officials would quickly know the type of outbreak they faced and could pinpoint the release points and map how prevailing air currents were spreading the poison.

"Pretty soon you know there’s a botulism release at McPherson Square," said Rolf Dietrich, deputy director at the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Office of Innovation. "The police could push through the news to anybody in the vicinity, telling them: 'We have indications of a potential problem. Evacuate to the south, because the wind is blowing this stuff to the north.'"
Here's the thing. This is a difference in degree, not in kind. We're already establishing the network of biosensors and radiation detectors in major cities, through the BioWatch program and the Secure Cities Initiative. Putting them in cell phones is an improvement, yes, but it's essentially more of the same.

More importantly, is this the best use of our resources? Let's remember that this type of intervention takes effect only after the cat is out of the bag. These detectors work only after the bad guy has already released the chemical, biological, or radiological agent. At that point, you're just trying to speed the response and do damage control. These are important, yes. But are they worth a major investment of time, money and technology? A few questions:
  • How many people are we going to be able to protect, thanks to the sensors in the cell phones, as compared to the number of people we could protect with the BioWatch and SCI sensors?
  • Will the police and other first responders coordinate their communication, which seems so essential to maximizing the effectiveness of this intervention?
  • Will they even have the interoperable systems that allow them to communicate?
  • Will emergency services be able to move groups of victims to healthcare facilities?
  • Will those healthcare facilities have sufficient resources to manage the influx of patients?
  • How quickly can we test to know exactly what agent we're dealing with and what the treatment should be?
  • Do we have enough facilities for decontamination of those people who may have come into contact with the agent?
  • What can we do to prevent the release of the agent?
All of these questions seem more immediate and pertinent than the question of, "If we put the sensors in cell phones, can we move more people out of harm's way more quickly?"

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