Here's the scene: Terrorists release deadly chemicals into the air near a major metropolitan center, creating a killer plume that is drifting with the wind toward millions of unsuspecting citizens. But within minutes, authorities from the president down to the local firefighters know what the chemicals are, where the plume is heading, and how to best cope with the unfolding crisis.
At the same time hospitals throughout the area receive the same information, and nearby jurisdictions are alerted to the probable need for assistance.
And it all happens automatically.
Sound too good to be true? Not to the people at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. They've already developed just such a system locally.
Work in Progress
"It works," says John Strand, a telecommunications expert who is heading up the lab's efforts to promote what it calls "SensorNet" on a national scale.
Chemical, biological, and radiological sensors have been installed in three eastern Tennessee cities — Nashville, Knoxville and Oak Ridge, as well as in New York City, Washington, D.C., and at Fort Bragg, N.C. The sensors are tied into a telecommunications network that collects data from all sorts of places, thus giving users the ability to compare various types of information and limit the false positives that inevitably occur on any early warning system.
The program was unveiled last week for Frank Libutti, a top official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who told Tennessee authorities he would direct his staff to look into the feasibility of establishing a national network patterned after the Oak Ridge program.
Strand is a "hands-on" kind of executive who directed Sprint's development of a broadband communications program, and he is clearly optimistic about the future of SensorNet. He estimates it would cost from $5 billion to $6 billion to expand the program nationally.
But this is clearly a work in progress, so it is being designed in such a way that it can evolve over time as new technology emerges. Not all chemicals, or biological materials, can be detected by remote sensors. Sometimes it takes days, or even weeks, to positively identify a specific substance.
The development of new types of sensors that can, for example, literally sniff out hazardous materials on the basis of smell, is a hot-button subject these days, and labs all over the world are working in that area. Some are furnishing sensors free to Oak Ridge just to test out their effectiveness.
So the goal of the lab is to provide the infrastructure "so if you have a better sensor you just unplug the old one and you plug in the new one," Strand says. "You don't have to change anything."
Piggybacking on Cell Phone Tech
During tests conducted over the last few months, the lab has found a number of bugs in the system, many of which have already been fixed.
"One of the things that bothered me the most was we had a lot of sensor information that was going to people, but it wasn't going to the right people," Strand says. "The first responders were sometimes the last to know."
So SensorNet has been designed to integrate the flow of data with existing networks that serve the needs of people who really need to know. The person who monitors fire alarms in Nashville, for example, now also gets data from SensorNet, so if there's a problem, that person, sitting in a local fire station, is among the first to know.