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Federal Government Equips First Responders

May 2002
By Henry S. Kenyon

Bureau helps outfit police and firefighters’ kit.

The U.S. government is researching technologies to help state and local police, along with public safety organizations, coordinate and manage resources and personnel in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. These applications are being selected through an interagency effort designed to provide nonfederal entities with the latest systems and equipment.

In emergency situations, local and state organizations are often first on the scene. Because these groups number in the thousands and are as varied as the communities and regions they represent, a central repository for listing, pricing and locating materiel as well as creating national standards for new devices is necessary.

One of the major national clearinghouses for this data is the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Washington, D.C., the research arm of the U.S. Justice Department. According to George C. Tillery, a senior program manager with NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology, the institute develops technology for state and local law enforcement and public safety groups. The NIJ has a limited resource base, which prompts it to leverage its research and development efforts by partnering with other agencies. For example, the institute works with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in areas such as biometrics, weapons detection and less-than-lethal technologies.

The NIJ currently is studying incident response technologies to help officials react to and track events that unfold. The original incentive for the work came from a 1997 congressional mandate to develop technologies to fight terrorism. Over the past five years, the program evolved to focus on developing technologies that are applicable to many types of critical incidents, which include terrorist attacks but could also apply to major events such as hurricanes, train wrecks and industrial accidents. The applications are useful to more than one public safety discipline, benefiting law enforcement, fire departments, hazardous materials teams and emergency medical services. Because first responders must deal with many different kinds of events, the institute began investigating incident management systems. “You have to be able to allocate and track resources and manage a response to an incident regardless of what it is,” Tillery says.

The institute began seriously examining incident management technology in 2001 when it became evident that no major study had ever been conducted to define user requirements or to baseline existing technologies. “In other words, right now there are a number of technologies that are ‘incident management’ technologies, but there has been no rigorous assessment of how well they perform or what it is they are supposed to do,” Tillery observes.

To address this issue, the NIJ established an incident management technology testbed. Tillery notes that the institute currently has assessed roughly 13 technologies that meet its preliminary criteria. He expects a final report on those technologies to be ready by the end of this year.

The effort involves assessing both software and hardware systems. The NIJ also is looking at communications and information system interoperability and potentially integrating sensors and other technologies into these applications. For example, a Department of Transportation program called the Intelligent Transportation System would allow a region’s public safety community to use a future incident management technology on a daily basis. This system may have data feeds from a variety of sensors such as chemical and biological sensors, environmental sensors, weather data or highway monitoring systems.

This hypothetical system could, for instance, tell authorities what routes are available and those that are congested or blocked during an evacuation. Another function of the resource management application would be to notify officials about units that are committed to an emergency and those that are available. Although he cautions that such a system is many years away, Tillery says the goal of the institute’s assessment program is to catalog technologies that contribute to emergency officials’ situational awareness.

Concurrent to this effort, the NIJ is funding a technology demonstration that allows members of the first responder community to test these technologies. “Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll be able to succinctly articulate what our user requirements are as well as baseline existing technologies in one document. That will provide a benchmark for us to go forward with development if it’s required,” he says.

The NIJ is working to standardize communications bands and frequencies among various law enforcement, fire and emergency response groups across the nation through its Advanced Generation Interoperability for Law Enforcement (AGILE) program. The effort also seeks to develop software-definable radios for use by these groups. “We’re taking a hard look at their utility and applicability to law enforcement requirements and public safety in general,” he says.

One technological component of the project currently in field trials is the ACU-1000 modular interconnect system. The device is a mobile communication switch that allows the interconnection of similar but noninteroperable radio systems. The ACU-1000 permits wireless communication systems to be combined at the audio baseband by using the received signal from one radio system as the source audio for one or more transmitters of differing technologies. Police departments in the Washington, D.C., area are participating in an operational evaluation of the technology, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has adopted the switch to meet its interoperability need in the Norfolk, Virginia, area.

The NIJ helped develop INFOTECH, a cross-jurisdictional information sharing system that allows local criminal justice organizations to share data securely. Material such as historical information, vehicle registration, pawnshop data, mug shots, and drivers license images can be accessed in real time. The system not only provides data access within a jurisdiction, but it also allows law enforcement personnel to query information sources from other participating agencies.

Tillery notes that the NIJ tries to focus its research on areas that are not heavily studied. One area of research is in biological and chemical agent detectors. An ongoing program seeks to develop sensors that first responders can wear like a badge to warn an individual user about harmful agents. Researchers are currently studying nerve agents; later this year an effort will begin to develop a biological sampler to detect anthrax spores.

Biological agent detection is more difficult and time-consuming compared to chemical agent detection and warning, which can be done in real time, Tillery says. The goal is to design a system that samples the air around an individual. At the end of a person’s shift, their device is placed in an analyzer that reads what the person was exposed to during the day. “We are trying to let them know in sufficient time to take appropriate medical procedures. What happened with the [anthrax] letters was that everybody was given [the antibiotic] Cipro. The idea is to be able to identify those people who have actually been exposed and to do it in a reasonably short period of time,” he says.

Another effort underway at the NIJ is the creation of national first responder equipment standards. The program began two to three years ago when it was discovered that no compendium existed that a city or county purchasing agent could use to compare prices for first responder equipment such as respirators, decontamination equipment or communications systems, Tillery explains. The NIJ created a series of five equipment guides during the past several years, and the material was posted on the institute’s Web site in October in response to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The material in all five guides is vendor-provided data because the institute did not have a common set of standards to evaluate the technologies. Tillery explains that the next step is to put those standards in place and begin evaluating technologies as comparative data is gathered. However, he notes the current guides fill an important role because nothing existed before them.

Tillery expects the first round of development to be complete by 2004 or 2005. The institute is implementing a standards development strategy adopted by the InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability. The members of NIJ sit on the board, which is a U.S. Defense Department and Justice Department sponsored entity. “It’s rather a unique beast because what you’ve got is a bunch of federal technology developers sitting down with state and local first responders articulating where they want to go,” he says.

Tillery also claims that the NIJ possesses one of the longest running and strongest weapons detection programs in the federal government, noting that the institute recently fielded an enhanced electromagnetic portal for airport access security. The portal operates differently than most commercially available metal detectors because it uses magnetometers that detect perturbations in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by ferromagnetic material such as steel. The device is more resistant to false alarms caused by jewelry and other metals. “So you’ve got increased throughput [at airport terminals]. It’s going to find steel, and that’s what it looks for,” he says, noting that the device has been successfully tested and is being considered for use by the FAA. 

Another technology is a millimeter-waveband weapons detection system. Tillery notes that the device’s sensor is part of a U.S. Army millimeter wave sensor technology development program and that the technical agent contracting this effort is the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. The device can detect both metallic and nonmetallic concealed weapons. The scanner reads heat energy radiated by the human body. People emit heat across a spectrum that includes infrared and the millimeter waveband, he explains. Because the human body absorbs and radiates heat at different temperatures, the system works by creating a real-time video outline of a human form, with the body appearing black and concealed objects carried under clothing contrasting in white. Tillery hopes that within a year, the NIJ will be able to field-test a prototype in airports.

Bomb detection and diagnostics is another area where the institute is leveraging information technology for use by bomb disposal technicians. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently published some 30 years worth of bomb data, but there were difficulties because the material appeared only in reference books, which are usually not taken into the field. Tillery notes that bomb technicians often call headquarters to have someone reference bomb data from the library. To simplify this, the NIJ put the FBI data on three compact discs that are being distributed to military and civilian bomb disposal technicians across the country.

Last year, the NIJ also began experimenting with providing this data on personal data assistants and palm-size computers. The first prototypes of this technology put together with NIJ-developed software were deployed at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games by the Fairfax County, Virginia, bomb squad, he says.

The institute also seeks to develop chemical/biological protection ensembles for bomb technicians’ equipment. Currently, there are a variety of bomb suits available providing varying levels of protection against blast and fragmentation. “The question is how well do they work against blast and fragmentation if somebody is using an improvised explosive device as a delivery mechanism for a chemical agent,” he expresses. To answer this question, the NIJ is working with the U.S. Army to investigate equipment that is available commercially and learn what is being developed, he says.

Additional information on the National Institute of Justice is available on the World Wide Web at