Case Study

The First Response: GTRI Fosters Basic and Applied Research to Enhance Emergency Response and Disaster Management

Published: February 9, 2002

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FOR FIRST RESPONDERS to a biological or chemical terrorism attack, seconds count. Assessing a situation quickly can mean the difference between life and death for the immediate victims of the attack, and for people in the area surrounding the scene.

Recent biological terrorism attacks in the United States have heightened awareness of the need for better technologies to help firefighters and rescue workers do their jobs. But researchers at the Center for Emergency Response Technology, Instruction, and Policy (CERTIP) at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) sensed that need about three years ago.

With funding from the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) and Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., GTRI principal research scientist Tom Bevan founded CERTIP as a public-private partnership to foster basic and applied research to enhance emergency response and consequence management for both natural and human-caused disasters.

Bevan was motivated to start CERTIP after a series of letter bomb and anthrax threats, which proved to be hoaxes, in Atlanta several years ago. "I had just returned from two years in the Ukraine, where I had considerable concern for my physical safety, but when I got back home, I expected to be safe," Bevan recalls. "I knew my next career goal was to make a contribution to homeland defense. When I took a look around and found that there was no research funding agency that focused on first responder needs, I took the case to the Georgia Congressional delegation. I found bipartisan support for starting a research and development program through the U.S. Marine Corps."

CERTIP acts as a systems engineering center in integrating research, technological and organizational interactions. Bevan's goal is to provide the emergency responder community with access to enhanced knowledge and technology. He wants to build a coalition of world-class organizations to address their needs, he says. Its partners include the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, firefighting agencies, hazardous materials emergency personnel, medical professionals, law enforcement officials and, of course, the Marine Corps.

"With the tragic events of Sept. 11, it is imperative that we equip our emergency personnel with the finest response tools and capabilities," says John M. Allison, director of the MCWL's Office of Science, Technology & Integration. "MCWL continues to believe that the safety of our citizens, first responders, emergency managers and military personnel is paramount."

Already, CERTIP has organized two forums on the subject, conducted a major chemical release disaster exercise called Project Atlanta and demonstrated five promising first-responder technologies.

"Project Atlanta demonstrated that the CERTIP technologies would be instrumental in bridging the gaps between first response and real-time information," Allison says. "The shared information would assist managers with command and control, operations, logistics and medical response at all levels of government, including the Department of Defense and its newly increased role of homeland security."

Sensor detects multiple biological and chemical agents
The first CERTIP technology – which could be available in as soon as a year, depending on funding – is a shoebox-sized, integrated-optic sensor that can detect the presence of multiple biological and chemical agents, such as salmonella and chlorine, in seconds. Senior research scientist Daniel Campbell in GTRI's Electro-Optics, Environment and Materials Laboratory (EOEML) is leading the effort to tune the sensor for detecting a range of potentially harmful substances. Though researchers have not yet studied its potential for detecting anthrax bacteria and other highly dangerous substances, its capabilities could easily be extended to do so, Campbell adds. These studies would be done off campus in labs specially trained in working with these materials.

The sensor could be produced for $200 to $300 per unit. It consists of a laser light source, a planar waveguide (which is essentially a small piece of glass through which the light moves) and a detector for monitoring light velocity changes produced by a chemical reaction that takes place on the surface of the waveguide. The waveguide's surface is treated to respond simultaneously to a number of specific biological and chemical agents.

The chemical reaction alters the speed of light through the waveguide. This change is monitored by comparison with a reference beam that is isolated from the sensing chemistry. Signal processing software interprets the sensor's results and delivers information on the agents' identity and quantity.

"The sensor's chemically selective coating, in its current configuration, has 13 channels that are reusable in many cases and can be modified for detection of different agents," Campbell explains. "One advantage of having multiple sensing channels is that through redundancy the number of false alarms can be reduced."

In development for more than 10 years, the sensor's initial applications have been in environmental monitoring and food safety. In its current design, the sensor is linked to a laptop computer, but it doesn't necessarily have to be, Campbell says. Other GTRI researchers are designing wireless communications capabilities for the system that will allow results to be transmitted from the field to a command center. The sensor will also be integrated with first-responder decision aid software described below.

Future enhancements to the sensor could allow detection of airborne bacteria and viruses, one of the most challenging problems in analytical chemistry since the Gulf War, Campbell says. The need exists for rapid, real-time, inexpensive detection, identification, and quantification of unknown airborne pathogens or toxins. GTRI researchers are investigating real-time methods for monitoring aerosolized bioweapons. The plan is to combine a direct optical interferometric sensor with available air sampling technologies capable of collecting large volumes of ambient air and placing that air in a concentrated solution, Campbell adds.

Reaching back to medical experts
A second technology developed jointly by EOEML and GTRI's Information Technology and Telecommunications Laboratory (ITTL) is the Medical Reachback System. Using a secure wireless local area network, it transmits vital patient information via the Internet from first responders in the "hot zone" of a chemical or biological agent release to a command post. It can transmit information on victims' symptoms and vital signs so doctors in hospital emergency rooms can remotely assess victims and order treatment.

"In chemical warfare, you only have a few minutes to save someone's life," Bevan explains. "And emergency medical technicians on the scene need a doctor's permission to administer an antidote."

The technology for Reachback is non-proprietary and Web-based. So physicians will use an Internet browser to access a secure Web page to get information on the incident and then access a single page set up for each patient.

"It will not require any special software for the doctors, just a browser," explains Mike Witten, an ITTL research engineer working on the project. "The security issues are being addressed. The Reachback system will use a private network that requires both encryption and authentication. Also, there will be no specific information to indicate who the patient is. Patients will just be numbered. Also, we are considering security issues in the event of a cyber-terrorism attack."

Reachback primarily uses off-the-shelf technology, but researchers may design some additional components. "Our goal is to make the system affordable, even to smaller departments," Witten says. "But we don't have a good figure for the cost yet."

Researchers are still working on the system, hoping to shrink its size to make it more portable. Witten does not yet know when it will become commercially available.

PDA help in evaluating symptoms
Meanwhile, another CERTIP technology that will eventually work hand in hand with the sensor and Reachback is the ChemBio Decision Aid software program that runs on a personal digital assistant – initially the Windows CE-based Palm Top™ PC. Research scientist Christina Baxter developed the software so emergency medical technicians (EMTs) on the scene could quickly determine the possible chemical or biological agent based on the victims' symptoms.

EMTs can go through an electronic checklist of symptoms to help make their decisions. CERTIP plans to publish the software as a shareware program this spring. It will be available for a nominal fee.

"First responders are on their own right now," Witten says. "They walk in there only knowing what they know. There is not necessarily any guidance. And they don't deal with this type of situation on a daily basis. So it's tough."

Decision Aid asks a series of 14 symptomatic questions such as whether the patient is sweating, coughing excessively, etc., and it prompts rescuers to gather and store basic information such as whether the patient is conscious, male or female, adult or child, or perhaps pregnant. Later, rescuers can download this information at the command post or medical station.

Next, Decision Aid generates suggestions of the type of agent rescuers may be encountering and scores to help them evaluate the likelihood of those agents. Then the software delivers information on patient treatment and decontamination of the site.

"Decision Aid will eventually use the Reachback system to connect to the experts," Witten explains. "It will be the first line of information gathering."

Together, Reachback and Decision Aid may replace the current cue-card style of electronic information gathering at the scene. The current technology generates a score like Decision Aid does, but does not offer a real-time connection to the experts as Reachback will do, Witten adds.

Making maps and floor plans available
A fourth CERTIP technology is the Situation-Awareness Geographic Information System (GIS), which tracks the location of people and biological or chemical agents in the field. GIS technology can create electronic maps that superimpose various types of information in layers over a common map.

Using Reachback's wireless communication link and Decision Aid's Palm Top display, the system could transmit information such as building blueprints and prediction of contaminant plume dispersion from command centers to emergency personnel on the scene.

Led by GTRI principal research scientist Nick Faust, researchers in ITTL and the College of Architecture are collaborating on this project. The Situation-Awareness GIS system has integrated information in an Exercise Management Decision Support System with a three-tiered architecture.

It is comprised of a server connected to a series of laptop hubs, which in turn are linked to Palm Tops carried by emergency responders in the field. Researchers hope to add the capability to send video information from the field to control centers via wireless communication links.

In the Project Atlanta exercise, researchers simulated a hazardous materials airborne release in Atlanta. With the GIS system, they located the airborne release plume, then calculated its dispersion and showed evacuation routes.

This technology is based on off-the-shelf components and could be implemented soon for first responders, Faust says.

Seeing through walls and doors
Finally, the RADAR Flashlight developed by Gene Greneker and his research team in GTRI's Sensors and Electromagnetic Applications Laboratory could help police officers searching for a suspect hiding inside a building or help first responders find unconscious victims of a chemical attack.

A prototype RADAR Flashlight can detect a human's presence through doors and walls up to 8 inches thick. The device uses a narrow 16-degree radar beam and specialized signal processor to discern respiration and/or movement up to 9 feet behind a wall. The device can penetrate even heavy clothing to detect respiration and movements of as little as a few millimeters.

"We believe the RADAR Flashlight potentially will be useful to police officers in ambush situations, and now first responders to chemical attacks staged by terrorists," says Greneker, a principal research scientist.

The initial development of the RADAR Flashlight was funded by the by National Institute of Justice, and more recent work was sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps, which also funds CERTIP. Georgia Tech has filed a provisional patent for the device, which could become commercially available to law enforcement officials and first responders within a year if current plans materialize to license the technology to a start-up company, Greneker adds.

Closing other gaps in the defenses
"We've identified a lot of the first response technology gaps," Bevan says of CERTIP and its partners. "Some of these technologies can be available quickly. So we are making progress toward being prepared for another terrorist attack."

An issue that needs further examination is command and control, a military concept referring to the lines of authority. "At the World Trade Center, there were 24 command posts when there should have been one," Bevan says. "Many of the fire chiefs and emergency managers died in the first half hour. There was a lot of disorganization and inability to communicate."

Still another issue is the need for a standard digital protocol for data communication. At both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, first responders were operating on a number of different radio frequencies, and most cell phone service was lost, Bevan says. This accounted for some of problems associated with coordinating their efforts.

CERTIP is continuing its mission with plans for a hazardous materials training and technology test bed facility in Cobb County. The Georgia Emergency Training and Operations Center would be a joint project of GTRI, the Georgia National Guard, which would provide construction funds, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry associated with the Centers for Disease Control. Bevan hopes the center will open within two years.

Meanwhile, a lot of first-responder technology development continues at Georgia Tech. Policy experts in the Ivan Allen College are contributing to the CERTIP efforts, as are scientists in the Schools of Biology and Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Biologists are developing a system for "immune buildings," in which a sensor would detect chemical or biological agents in the facility and blow them out through the ventilation system or neutralize them in other ways. Earth scientists are providing advice on environmental monitoring.

"And we are looking ahead to other universities and to not-for-profit corporations to develop new technologies," Bevan says. "We want to form a broad coalition. Together, we will have more leverage to get things done. Everybody is convinced now that the nation needs research and development focused on the first responder."