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Disaster Preparedness 2011: Smart phones enhanced with nanotube hazmat detectors bring a new dimension to preparedness

Chris Needs

What if your cell phone could detect toxic airborne substances like carbon monoxide, chlorine or even chemical warfare agents?

The public would have a new level of personal protection against a range of fairly common airborne chemical-based toxins, as well as against terrorist attacks involving WMDs. And when sensor data is harnessed in an environmental sensing network for first responders and other organizations, it will be the dawn of a new era for disaster preparedness. 

While this may sound like science fiction, it has become a reality today, and it is known as Cell-All. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology directorate and a cadre of technology and disaster preparedness partners recently demonstrated the Cell-All capability at a Los Angeles Fire Department training facility. The technology is based on new nanotube sensors developed by NASA and Synkera Technologies and is engineered to work within the small space and power consumption requirements of a cell phone.

Qualcomm technology captures the sensor data, scrubs it of any personal information associated with the owner of the cell phone, and uses a series of algorithms to characterize the confidence, severity, location and other aspects of the incident. The validated incident data is then transmitted to analysts at NC4, a technology and services company that operates incident monitoring centers for government and corporate clients. NC4 analysts are trained to quickly assess the incident, correlate it with other real-time information and contact first responders or other organizations -- all within minutes of initial detection.

The benefits of this technology for emergency and disaster preparedness are evident on numerous levels. An individual could be notified immediately if there were abnormal concentrations of a toxic chemical in close proximity. The sounding of an alarm brings instant situational awareness to the owner of the smart phone, so that he or she can take action and get to safety. If the individual opted into the environmental sensing network, hazmat teams and first responders would be notified automatically, helping to alleviate the strain on the increasingly overburdened 9-1-1 system. Sensor-enabled smart phones could become part of standard-issue personal protective equipment for these first responders, better preparing them to assess life-and-death situations without carrying special, cumbersome equipment.

Private industry could use the technology to reduce the risk of workplace accidents, especially in more dangerous sectors, such as the chemical industry. For places that attract large gatherings of people, such as hotels, malls or stadiums, security staff could more quickly engage personnel to pro-actively organize evacuations.

Furthermore, state and federal emergency management and national security preparedness would be enhanced with real-time data on toxic events involving the public. While the benefits of Cell-All technology are numerous, so are its applications.

It is important to emphasize that alerts generated by the Cell-All network are not just raw sensor data processed and pushed out by sophisticated computers. Experienced NC4 analysts perform the critical human-in-the-loop function of identifying false positives, assessing the characteristics of the incident, and correlating it with other information. Analysts evaluate the geographical context -- where is the incident happening and is it located near a soft target or sensitive facility?  Is one sensor being triggered in a private residence, or are many sensors being activated in a mall or sports stadium? Does the event correlate in proximity, subject or in any other way with one of the other 900 real-time incidents being monitored by NC4 each week (like a suspicious package or other hazmat incident)?

By evaluating this kind of information, and correlating it with other open source information, such as roadway closures from a state DOT, or wind speed and direction from the NWS, or restricted information from law enforcement and emergency response channels, NC4 transforms basic incident information into vetted, value-added and actionable intelligence that consumers in the public and private sectors can trust.

If any sizable proportion of the 300 million cell phones in the U.S. were enabled with this technology, it would also bring a powerful tool to the nation's anti-terrorism efforts, with minimal investment. The ability to crowd-source the data provided by these sensors could help identify coordinated terrorist attacks more quickly.

In 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba coordinated 10 simultaneous shootings and bombings in Mumbai, and we are all too familiar with Al Qaeda’s coordinated attacks using airplanes on 9/11. The effects of a coordinated chemical attack like the 1995 release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system could be mitigated by Cell-All. The early identification of the toxin combined with other sensor and GPS data could help authorities stop the right subway traffic, to disable airflow systems that disperse the toxin, and to engage EMS and hazmat crews as early as possible.

Professionals in national security, corporate security, crisis response and emergency preparedness fields know that real preparedness is both multi-dimensional and overlapping. The Cell-All program evokes both by involving the individual, first responders, private enterprise, and local, state, and federal governments. Mobile devices are a tool for change, and we now have technology to leverage the power of the masses and the cell phones they carry to improve both personal safety and public readiness.

Chris Needs oversees the NC4 Risk Center solution for tactical and strategic situational awareness. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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