Urban alert: Tracking harmful gases


A consortium of public and private officials in two southern municipalities wants to develop a network of environmental sensors that would detect the spread of harmful gases within urban areas and instantly alert first responders.

No federal funding has yet been earmarked for the project. However, officials at Davis-Paige Management Systems (DPMS) LLC have been working with federal, state and local officials in Atlanta for more than a year and with officials in Cumberland County, N.C., since May 2003. In each case, they want to develop a sensor network and plume — gas cloud — modeling system integrated with command and control platforms that would detect hazardous gases and alert first responders.

Micheal Davis, chief executive officer and president of Fairfax Station, Va.-based DPMS, said the goal is to have a networked sensor system coupled with alert systems to create a comprehensive picture of a

hazardous-material release into an urban area. Those would help first responders make better decisions in case of a terrorist, man-made or natural disaster, he said.

If "there's an incident, then everyone in that network will be able to see what's going on, get the predictive plume, warn their personnel to either go into safe-haven zones that have been established in their emergency management plan, or they'll tell folks to evacuate that site in accordance with the emergency management plan," said Davis, a 26-year Army veteran and expert in chemical, radiological and biological weapons and detection systems.

"And then the next step is [to] warn or alert the first responders like the [firefighters], the hazmat [team], the law enforcement [officers], medical personnel that there's an incident at this particular site, and this is the type of equipment you should take with you when you go to that site, and the level of protection that you should take because they now know what's there," he said.

DPMS is working with Columbia, Md.-based Prism Communications Inc., a systems integrator.

Jyotin Bharwada, Prism's chief operating officer, said the idea is to have all the sensors distributed at critical infrastructures.

"And if there's an incident that's detected, one of the key parameters is to understand how this plume or this gaseous cloud is going to behave," he said. It "is very much dependent on where it's been dispersed, what is the topology of that area — like [Washington] D.C. is different from New York [City] is different from Atlanta because of what you call urban canyons." Urban canyons comprise the walls, ground and air between adjacent buildings in an urban area.

DPMS' initiative is based on DCNet, an observational program combined with predictive modeling systems to determine how gases disperse in urban areas.

Bruce Hicks, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Air Resources Laboratory, which has been running DCNet for the past two-and-a-half years, said it's a way to find out about cities' wind patterns and forecast air quality.

"The intention is to put out there the sensors to give us the keen meteorological information that we can then use to drive very fine models," he said. But challenges exist. Wind directions and materials' dilution rates vary greatly across urban areas.

In Atlanta, Geraldine Dodson, senior vice president of DPMS' business development division in the southeastern region, said company officials met with several city, county and state officials as well as with private-sector representatives. Several federal government agencies are also located in the city, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.

The first phase, planned to last about six months, would assess current communication capabilities and implement a working prototype. The second phase would expand that system. The initial cost for the first phase will be $1 million for each municipality; the second phase would range from $1.5 million to $5 million.

In Cumberland County, Davis said

officials would be working with Pope Air Force Base and the Army's Fort Bragg.

But that all depends on funding. The Defense Department has advanced sensors, he said, but they're too expensive for cities to purchase.

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