NYCT metro sensors: early warning for chemical and biological threats

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Written by

United States Department of Homeland Security

The current test bench consists of eight secure cabinets in an NYCT subway station. Biodetection sensors are not yet installed, but the cabinets currently house environmental sensors, power and communication equipment, as well as a nearby command center that will support the operation of the sensors.

Public transport is the backbone of a city. It moves people safely and quickly from place to place for work, school, events, meetings, and errands. It connects businesses and families with each other. Ensuring the security of these systems without hampering or slowing the flow of traffic is essential. So how do you monitor transit spaces for potential biological or chemical hazards without slowing down anyone?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) works tirelessly with its public transportation partners to help make transit systems safer while maintaining their efficiency. DHS’s Science and Technology (S&T) Branch has developed and perfected various sensor technologies for transit as part of the Urban Security Initiative, a portfolio of collaborative projects with New York City, to help protect high density urban areas from threats. One of those collaborations, called Underground Transport Restoration, involved a simulated airborne health risk that was dispersed and measured in the MTA New York City Transit subway system in May 2016. This work, ongoing since 2010, uses science, technology and simulation modeling to help make public transportation safer, even during the pandemic.

Quickly detecting and mitigating biological or chemical threats in the metro is essential to prevent the spread of hazardous materials should the unthinkable happen. However, the technologies currently in use do not work fast enough for a metro environment, and false alarms can cause unnecessarily disruptive and costly shutdowns.

Chemical and biodefense test bed tackles chemical and biological threats

Fast forward to today and S & T’s latest collaborative project — Chemical and Bio-Defense Testbed (CBT) —that tests and evaluates cost-effective technologies to detect chemical and biological threats in a real subway environment, as well as mitigation strategies if threats are detected. This project is a collaboration between S&T, the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the MTA New York City Transit (NYCT), the New York Police Department, the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, and the New York City Department. Health and mental hygiene.

“As a North American leader in adopting technologies to improve transportation safety and reliability, MTA values ​​its partnership with DHS to ensure passengers are protected from emerging threats,” said Mark Dowd, innovation director of the MTA. “As a precaution, we embrace S & T’s expertise in evaluating detection protocols that could provide early notification if someone seeks to threaten our customers. ”

A test bed is a real world environment where researchers can see how the technology works. Several test beds already exist in New York, examining new technologies for different hazards. CBT is designed to detect a wide range of threats using chemical and biological sensor technologies. The initial phase of CBT focuses on biological threats (such as Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium responsible for anthrax), because they are more difficult to detect early (during the incubation period) and can multiply for days before being noticed. On the contrary, when a chemical hazard is released, the effects are usually immediately visible.

The current test bench consists of eight secure cabinets in an NYCT subway station. Biodetection sensors are not yet installed, but inside the cabinets are environmental sensors, power and communication equipment, as well as a nearby command center that will take over the operation of the sensors.

Once the new biosensing technology is installed (from government, academia and the private sector), researchers at S&T and MIT Lincoln Laboratory will collect data to assess the performance of the technologies. This data will include false alarm rate, probability of detection, detection time and cost of ownership, as well as environmental data collected from supporting equipment such as temperature, pressure, relative humidity, wind speed and direction. The data can also be used for technological improvements.

“To follow the evolution of threats, S&T wants the metro test bed to be sustainable, because this will allow us to continuously assess current and emerging detection and identification technologies related to chemicals and biodefense,” as well as the evaluation of the metro’s rapid mitigation and response measures, ”said Dr Don Bansleben, S&T CBT Program Director.

The test bench will achieve this and be cost effective, as the cabinets can be used over and over again to test new technology, saving taxpayer dollars while providing a real environment to assess performance.

Biosensors scan the air for dangerous organisms

Biowatch, a biosensing technology currently in use by several major cities in the United States, can detect and confirm pathogens such as Bacillus anthracis by DNA analysis, which may take 12-36 hours.

“We need information faster,” Bansleben said. “The early identification of a chemical-bio attack is imperative to save lives and prevent the spread. ”

CBT aims for biodetection and confirmation within about two hours. Different types of biodetection sensors will be installed inside the test bench. Some will take samples on a filter and potentially analyze captured microscopic organisms, such as anthrax. While other sensors will look for distinguishing characteristics of organisms, such as fluorescence, which indicate potential danger. Regardless of their type, the sensors will be networked and monitored for alarms. The future goal of these technologies is to immediately alert when a threat is suspected, so that rapid decisions and response actions can be taken.

“Multiple sensors using different physical principles to detect a threat would be ideal and give greater confidence that something unusual may be happening,” Bansleben said.

After the triggering of an alarm belonging to a sensor with filter, the filter will be collected and analyzed. Biodetection should follow the CDC Laboratory Response Network process, which requires confirmation by laboratory analysis. If the analysis confirms the viable threat of bacteria or viruses, response and mitigation measures will follow immediately.

The test benches will also support the attenuation tests. The movement of the train produces a flow of air that carries particles (a mixture of visible, microscopic solid particles and liquid droplets present in the air), including released dangerous pathogens. To decrease the spread of the biohazard plume, S&T is investigating mitigation strategies such as changing the position, speed and schedule of trains, and removing particles through filtration or removable curtains and air curtains by spraying liquid. In the event of a bioterrorist attack, the sensors will send a signal to emergency operations centers triggering potential future mitigation strategies.

“The idea of ​​demountable spray curtains is to physically remove particles from the air to prevent trains from pushing them to other stations or to prevent particles from escaping above the ground where people could breathe them, ”Bansleben said.

We’ve all come across air curtains in stores – jets of air creating an air wall – to keep cold air out of the door. For this project, the air curtain will prevent biological particles from reaching the next station, thus containing the contaminated area.

“It is important to know as quickly as possible that you have been attacked so that appropriate countermeasures can be taken to educate the public and distribute medical countermeasures to protect people’s health and save lives,” said Bansleben. “Our goal is to have extremely efficient, inexpensive and low-maintenance sensors,” said Bansleben.

What’s in store for you?

The installation of the biodetection sensors at the test bench of the metro station will take place in the summer of 2021, followed by other stations by the end of 2022. The biodetection sensors will also be used within the framework of ‘a major test event led by the S&T Urban Threat Dispersal project. S&T will observe how the technologies work on their own and with other sensing technologies, with the aim of networking different types of sensors for a cost-effective, efficient and high-quality system. This test bed methodology can be applied to other critical locations such as densely populated urban areas, special events, and critical infrastructure, with an initial focus on transit hubs in large urban areas.

“If we can successfully identify a system that correctly and effectively detects biohazards, we can help New York City and other cities improve their safety, emergency planning and preparedness,” Bansleben said.

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