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April 2, 2003

“PROACT” system helps mitigate chemical/biological threats
Sandia researchers partner with SFO, others to develop facility-protection system

LIVERMORE, Calif. — Building on the success of a program first employed at Washington, D.C.’s Metro subway system, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories in California are working with San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to test operational capabilities and new detection systems that will protect against chemical or biological terrorist threats.

PROACT (Protective and Responsive Options for Airport Counter-Terrorism) is a demonstration and application program initiated by the Chemical and Biological National Security Program within the Department of Energy, and continuing under the Science and Technology Directorate within the Department of Homeland Security. The genesis of the program was the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 and, after successful implementation at underground train stations in Washington, D.C., scientists from Sandia and other national lab partners are now working with SFO on a similar program.

Part of an integrated whole, designed to save lives

“The ultimate goal is an integrated system that will save lives in the event of a chemical or biological attack,” said Susanna Gordon, a Sandia researcher who serves as principal investigator for the PROACT program. “The ability to quickly recognize and address toxic chemical and biological warfare agent releases will be enhanced and serve as the basis for rapid, life-saving responses to such emergencies in the future.”

The PROACT program has two major thrusts targeted at facility protection and response. One important component is the development and testing of operational strategies to minimize the potential consequences of chemical or biological attacks. Another element is prototyping and demonstrating systems that will detect releases of chemical and biological warfare agents and quickly initiate life-saving responses. In addition to these technical systems, Sandia and other members of the research team are helping to develop operational plans and exercises by the principal partners in the program to optimize the use of the systems.

Both passive protection and active response measures

Even without operational detection systems, Gordon said, airport facilities can take measures to reduce their vulnerability to chemical and biological attacks. The measures include improvements to physical security to reduce the likelihood of successful attacks, and passive protection measures to limit casualties and contamination in the event of such an attack, even in the absence of any facility response.

Effective facility protection, Gordon said, requires both facility modifications as well as response measures. For example, PROACT analysts and SFO officials have collaborated to perform joint facility assessments and testing to determine how best to employ operational capabilities such as control of air handling systems to reduce the impact of potential terrorist activities. PROACT and SFO have also tested operational response strategies to known attacks to further mitigate the consequences of chemical or biological attacks. Finally, the program is deploying detection and response systems in limited areas of SFO to evaluate their performance in defensive systems for broader application nationwide.

The PROACT airport program seeks to demonstrate detection system components in order to provide the underpinnings for future integrated chemical and biological facility-monitoring systems. To this end, chemical and biological detection hardware has, periodically, been installed at SFO for temporary evaluations of proposed detection concepts, and further tests are planned in the future. Chemical detection equipment has been tested successfully in the Washington, D.C., Metro by an associated program, and some limited airport testing of such detectors has also shown promising results. In addition, PROACT is pursuing development of a biological monitoring concept applicable for long-duration continuous detection.

Impact and next steps

Much can be done to reduce the impact of an attack on fixed facilities where people are concentrated in small areas and quick evacuation is difficult. Use of preventive and passive-protection measures, as well as detection technologies, for one type of infrastructure can be extended to other types without major modification. The PROACT chemical and biological incident solutions, building on the successfully implemented system at Washington’s Metro, can be used as an archetype for other high-threat high-vulnerability subways, airports, and buildings.

Another objective of the PROACT airport program is to produce recommendations to airports for implementation of passive protection measures and emergency response plans. The program continues to collaborate with SFO on the pursuit of workable detection systems to enable long-term, round-the-clock monitoring of facilities for chemical and biological attacks, as well as to explore the operational implications of employing such systems. The ultimate goal of these efforts is to provide a foundation for protecting airports throughout the country from a growing security threat.

Sandia media contact: Mike Janes,, (925) 294-2447

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