Students help develop Rad Tool

Capstone program

With the help of four University of Virginia undergraduate students, Falls Church, Va.-based Defense Group Inc. has developed a software tool enabling first responders to make better decisions when faced with a "dirty bomb" or accidental radiation release.

"The tool now allows a user in the field to more rapidly identify the scope of a scenario that might involve radiologicals," said Donald Ponikvar, DGI's senior vice president. "[It will] hopefully identify what's causing the radioactivity to be present, and then rapidly assess the threat and then quickly generate some guidelines that are appropriate for that scenario."

The "Rad Tool" will enhance the company's Chemical Biological Response Aide (CoBRA) software package that is being used by FBI-accredited state and local bomb squads, nearly 2,000 first responder agencies across the country, and several federal civilian and military agencies, Ponikvar said. CoBRA provides first responders with extensive information about what to do in case of chemical and biological attacks.

The students' involvement comes through the Capstone program at the university's Department of Systems and Information Engineering. Capstone essentially is a senior research thesis project in which students must design a "real-world design project," sponsored by government agencies and industry, said Ponikvar, who added that he is a former classmate of the department's chairman, Donald Brown.

Starting in August 2002, the students, with help from a faculty adviser, worked on formal design and requirements analysis, risk management, graphical user interface design and adapting algorithms.

DGI provided the students with "technical guts," he said, including a methodology developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that predicts how radioactive dust and gases may drift based on known meteorological conditions and terrain. It also can also calculate people's exposure to radioactivity.

"If they get it on the outside of their body, it's different than if they breathe it in," he said, a function that is quite advanced from what's is presently available.

Ponikvar said the Rad Tool will be unveiled April 25 at a university conference. It also will be integrated into CoBRA and tested this year during a federally sponsored exercise simulating a chemical, biological and radiological attack.

Using CoBRA, in use since fall 2001, first responders can tap into guidelines — published by federal and other agencies — for responding to large-scale incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. Such information, he said, has been "distilled" into a standardized set of standard operating procedures and interactive checklists. Other tools enable users to get information about the level of threat, the kind of chemicals involved, potential hazards to the surrounding community. Ponikvar said that all actions are automatically logged and can be reported through a wireless Internet connection.

"It not only allows you to plan for the event and guide your actions on scene but it allows you afterwards to reconstruct the event and do analysis then subsequent to see whether your procedures were as good as they could be," said Ponikvar.

Besides the radiological software tool, other enhancements to CoBRA include improved electronic reporting tools and searchable chemical database, a DuPont Co.-produced database of chemical protective suits under its different brand names, and a school safety planning resources provided through license with Jane's Information Group.

"The fact that the same software meets the needs of all those different user communities, it gives them sort of a common language to speak when they do the joint exercises," said Ponikvar.

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