The recent outbreaks of swine flu arrived on our shores without warning. Fortunately, this biohazard proved less threatening than first thought. But what would have happened if this had been an extremely virulent form of influenza as happened in 1918? Or, if the catastrophe was a biological weapon deployed by a terrorist? Without accurate and timely warning, an effective response is virtually impossible.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been inexplicably slow in deploying new sensor systems to provide improved warning of attack, whether by biological threats or of nuclear materials being smuggled through our ports of entry. In the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, special anthrax sensors were deployed in U.S. Postal Service mail handling centers. A limited number of other bio-sensors – the exact number and their location is classified – were deployed at selected high traffic locations in major metropolitan areas. Yet, more than eight years later, no more bio-sensors have been deployed.
As the Postal Service learned how to employ their anthrax sensors, it discovered it could make do with fewer than DHS had initially deployed. The excess inventory, several hundred units, was returned to DHS. Rather than deploying these effective systems to provide some level of coverage for critical targets such as federal buildings in Washington, DHS has allowed them to sit in a warehouse.
A new generation of sensors has been developed under contract to DHS that could provide reliable warning of a biological threat in a matter of hours. The Autonomous Pathogen Detection System (APDS) is essentially an automated laboratory in a box, able to detect multiple threats, and report every four hours. This system has already undergone two years of field testing.
The problem is the same when it comes to the detection of nuclear threats. The DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office has successfully developed and tested advanced radiation detectors much more capable than the existing ones. Yet DHS dithers while promising to deploy even better sensors sometime in the future. The state of Florida is deploying one of these radiation detectors, so why can’t DHS?
DHS needs to take a page from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ playbook and deploy the 70 percent solution now rather than waiting for the 99 percent solution years in the future. First, the Department should deploy its inventory of excess anthrax sensors to key transit terminals and points of entry. Next it should accelerate production of the new generation of bio-sensors with the intent of widespread deployment beginning in 2010. Finally, DHS needs to deploy improved nuclear detection sensors at the nation’s ports of entry. Without rapid and reliable warning, the United States faces the prospect of being faced with a biological or nuclear catastrophe before it is even aware that it is under attack.
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