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Manhattan home to DHS urban security lab

NUSTL Director Adam Hutter

Tucked away of the 5th floor of an office building in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood – in the same building that houses allegedly illegal immigrants awaiting possible deportation proceedings by DHS – sits a little-known environmental testing laboratory which its current Director calls “the last remaining federal facility from the Manhattan Project which is still located in Manhattan.”

The lab has changed its name – and its mission – several times during the past six decades, to accommodate shifts in America’s perception of national security. It was re-christened the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory in 2009, following yet another strategy review by federal officials and yet another reformulation of its purpose in life.

In order to understand the current mission of the NUSTL -- and where it’s headed tomorrow -- it might be useful to look back briefly at where this unheralded lab has already been.

It all began in the 1940s, as scientists, engineers and technicians working secretly on the fabled Manhattan Project tried to develop an atomic bomb in offices in New York City, and other secret U.S. locations. A small lab, dubbed the Health and Safety Laboratory, was established to monitor the federal employees and outside contractors who were working directly on the bomb to ensure that they were not being exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity, explained Adam Hutter, the current lab director, who has worked in the lab for decades and took the helm about three years ago. Government Security News was allowed to interview Hutter and tour the lab’s facilities on Dec. 22.

When the Manhattan Project moved some of its testing operations to the Nevada Test Site, the Health and Safety Lab was asked to monitor the potential spread of radioactive fallout nationwide by collecting and measuring air samples throughout the country.

And when the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) was established in 1977, the Health and Safety Laboratory, was folded into that newly-created department and re-named the Environmental Measurements Laboratory. As EML, the lab handled a variety of environmental measurement assignments -- including an assessment of radiation levels at the troubled Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania after a meltdown in 1979, and participation on an international team of radiation experts that examined radiation levels in villages surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine in 1986.

EML became particularly active in the 1980s and 1990s, recalled Hutter, when it was handed the new mission of figuring out how to measure radioactivity in the environment generated by radon, a natural gas that occurs as a result of decaying uranium.

Those activities continued for about two decades, until the 9/11 attacks devastated the World Trade Center in Manhattan – located about 1.5 miles south of its SoHo facilities -- and once again transformed the lab’s mission in life.

Soon after those attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush began contemplating a massive reorganization of the federal government, with an eye toward consolidating all of the security- and disaster-related departments, agencies, labs and offices that were scattered across the federal bureaucracy into one huge, brand-new department, to be called the Department of Homeland Security.

“Fifteen to 20 people locked themselves in a room at the White House,” in an effort to identify the appropriate federal organizations to draw together into this new department, Hutter remembered. “They tried to bring Lawrence Livermore Lab over in its entirety,” Hutter noted, “but that didn’t work out.”

By this point, EML had been somewhat “sidelined” inside DoE, said Hutter, with relatively few top officials paying much attention to its day-to-day activities. So, the lab’s leadership in New York welcomed the possibility of being merged into the new DHS. In fact, because the 9/11 attacks occurred so close by, and it was likely that the new department would want to focus specifically on terrorist threats targeting urban areas, it made sense for EML to be incorporated into DHS, and it was organizationally slid under the newly-established Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate. “This was the best thing that has happened to our lab,” Hutter told GSN.

EML quickly wrapped up its long-standing projects and cut its ties with the Department of Energy. It immediately took on new initiatives at DHS that drew upon its decades of radiation-related expertise. On one hand, it began developing government-wide standards for a wide variety of radiation detection equipment that would be used by newly-prominent “first responders.” On the other hand, it began interacting with state and local police, fire and emergency agencies – particularly in the New York City metropolitan area – about their emerging requirements for radiation-related equipment.

“Vendors were coming out of the woodwork, offering what they thought were good products,” Hutter remembered, from those early years after the Sept. 11th attacks. “But state and local agencies needed guidance on what they should buy.”

The agencies would say to EML’s lab personnel, “We have this money to spend, but how do we spend it?”

To fill this knowledge gap, EML began assessing individual pieces of radiation-related – including pagers, radioisotope identifiers (which identify the specific type of radiation being detected), backpack systems, portal monitors and systems built-into first responder vehicles – writing up reports and posting those reports on the department’s online “Responder Knowledge Base,” where they would be accessible to first responders across the country. The lab was never quite sure how widely its reports were being read. “It’s tough to keep track of,” Hutter acknowledged. “We received occasional word of mouth, and a pat on the back now and then,” but consist feedback was hard to come by, he said.

“We didn’t have a well-defined mission,” Hutter continued. “We were floundering a bit.”

In 2009, the folks in the S&T Directorate, and their superiors, began to re-tool the Environmental Monitoring Laboratory once again, giving it an expanded mission and a new name. On December 1, 2009, EML was officially re-designated as the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory.

“The NUSTL team provides a test and evaluation capability for DHS-developed technologies and systems,” explains the DHS Web site. “Its Manhattan location and its broad-ranging relationships with the Tri-State region’s homeland security community, complement NUSTL’s test and evaluation capability by enabling the use of the New York metropolitan area as an urban test bed.”

Hutter explained that the lab is now seeking to broaden its coverage area to include all aspects of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives sensing -- known as CBRNE – rather than being pigeon-holed solely in radiation-related matters.  “We are trying to spread across the CBRNE spectrum,” he told GSN. “We want to test a variety of sensors. We’re trying to spread our wings.”

Now and again, his lab will take on assessment projects for seemingly unrelated systems which might appear to be “outside our comfort zone, said Hutter, such as weather stations (“How rugged do such weather stations need to be when first responders use them?”) or standard bar-coding systems, but generally the lab performs its testing, evaluation and assessment functions on systems that are closer to its natural strengths, such as hardware system sensors involved with biodetectors, stand-off explosive detectors and imaging technologies.

Today, NUSTL employs about 35 people, says Hutter. About 25 staffers are technical specialists with advanced degrees -- “We’ve got some very topflight people,” he boasts – and the rest are involved in the lab’s management.

The lab has joined other national institutions, such as Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia labs, in offering first responder agencies what is called a “Radiological and Nuclear Reach-back” service --  essentially a 24/7 service in which a state or local first responder agency can call up one of these labs and seek immediate advice on a thorny radiation-related question.

For example, a local fire department may be using equipment in the field that has triggered an alarm, but the fireman may not know how to deal with the ambiguous situation, said Hutter. “He doesn’t know how to resolve the alarm he is getting,” explained the lab director. NUSTL has seven or eight spectroscopists with expertise in these areas who are on call 24/7 to respond to such inquiries from around the country. As vital as such expertise may seem to be, the demand on this Radiological and Nuclear Reach-back service is actually diminishing, said Hutter. “We’ve seen a decrease in its use because state and local governments are developing their own in-house capabilities,” he said.

The lab has occupied the same floor of the same Manhattan office building since 1957, but is hoping that it will soon be able to re-locate to a different floor, with dramatically updated equipment and facilities. Having taken on a new name in 2009, and an expanded portfolio of duties ever since, NUSTL is eyeing a more expansive future. Unfortunately, government-wide budget-cutting may put a crimp in those plans in the short-term.

“We’re ‘shovel-ready’ to move to a different floor,” said Hutter, “but the continuing resolution --  which has effectively frozen many discretionary government programs – hasn’t helped us.” NUSTL doesn’t know precisely when it will make its move to bigger and better digs.

“We hope in calendar year 2011,” concluded Hutter.

An NUSTL success story

Among a host of success stories, the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory is the first organization within the Department of Homeland Security to be awarded a U.S. patent for an invention conceived by its employees, says lab director Adam Hutter.

On August 24, 2010, three NUSTL personnel – Gladys Klemic, Paul Bailey and Cecilia Brehency – were granted patent number 7,781,747 B1 for “very thin dosimeter filters” and a “low profile dosimeter” which incorporated those filters.

According to the patent itself, their invention “relates to a very thin dosimetry device generally comprising an optically stimulated luminescent material OSLM (i.e., aluminum oxide) sandwiched between at least two novel CEED filters…”

Hutter explained that employees in his lab had developed a smaller and cheaper version of a radiation detection dosimeter that could be used by first responders. The resulting device was the size of a credit card, said Hutter, and would cost only about $10 to produce.

Bailey is no longer working at NUSTL, but Klemic and Brehency remain on the staff, said the director.

Some commercial vendors are in talks with DHS about possibly licensing the patented technology, which could conceivably bring some royalties to all three patent inventors, Hutter added.

NUSTL performs government acceptance tests for state and local agencies free of charge

As it searched for ways to expand its activities, NUSTL recently took on a role that may be unique for a federal lab – it has agreed to perform “government acceptance testing” on thousands of pieces of equipment procured by public first responder agencies -- at the state and local levels -- which are manufactured and supplied by commercial vendors.

NUSTL unpacks the boxes and tests various radiation-related devices on behalf of more than 150 agencies in the New York metropolitan area that participate in the DHS “Securing the Cities” program, explained Hutter.

He acknowledged to GSN that this government acceptance testing was an unusual role for a federal lab to be playing, particularly when the work is paid for out of his lab’s own internal budget and is not being reimbursed by the customer agencies.

“It’s not a common practice, I understand,” said Hutter. But he justified the testing by explaining that the state and local agencies often don’t have the technical expertise to perform such acceptance testing on their own, and “the devices have a fairly high failure rate out of the box.”

“We’ve partnered with the Brookhaven National Laboratory to provide ‘cradle-to-grave’ service,” Hutter continued. NUSTL provides the up-front acceptance testing before the devices are shipped to the first responders that will actually use them, and Brookhaven provides the ongoing “service, calibration and maintenance” for the devices throughout their lifetime, he said. NUSTL does not receive any compensation for its testing work from the first responder agencies, said Hutter, because it is a government-owned and government-operated lab. Brookhaven, by contrast, does receive compensation from the same state and local agencies for its ongoing maintenance activities because it is a contractor-operated facility, Hutter explained. 

The NUSTL lab director said he did a lot of work to ensure that his government acceptance testing was a legitimate use of federal funds, but acknowledged that neither he nor other DHS officials thoroughly explored the possibility of charging the state and local agencies a ‘fee-for-service’ to recoup its out-of-pocket testing costs.

 

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